“If we don't act now, it'll fill up, and then it'll be too late to write the rules.” — John Janka, Viasat
I don’t mean to freak you out, but…
— There are about 30,000 tracked objects speeding around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour, measuring from two inches to the size of an upper stage rocket.
— Only 4,700 of those objects are still functioning satellites, keeping the world connected (plus one functioning space station).
— Statistical models estimate there are one million objects larger than a half inch, and 330 million really tiny pieces.
— Is NASA doing anything to clean up the trash? Not really.
Last month, Russia intentionally fired a missile to destroy one of its own satellites, presumably to test whether it could destroy someone else’s satellite (*cough* America *cough*).
The explosion created a debris cloud of hundreds of thousands of pieces of metal and other materials, a cloud that U.S. officials claim the International Space Station flew through.
If it sounds like a scene from “Gravity,” well, it’s not that dire.
Space junk is a huge problem, and somebody could make a lot of money becoming the orbital Waste Management. It seems like a tremendous business opportunity, and I’m all about that.
Except nobody wants to pay for it.
“That’s always the biggest question, who will pay,” says Chris Blackerby of Astroscale, a company focusing on debris removal. “That is the most important question.”
Instead, investors are pouring billions into satellite companies that promise to put even more stuff in orbit, as we become even more reliant on space for communications, and as launches become less expensive.
John Janka heads up global affairs at satellite giant Viasat. He says what used to be a very costly and exclusive industry has taken on a Silicon Valley mentality. “I think part of it is, ‘Let me get up and do what I can now, and I'll worry about [space junk] 20 years from now. It's not my issue today.’”
There may even be a financial reason to leave debris behind. “Does anyone have an incentive to clean up their own mess right now?” Janka asks. “If they make a mess, it makes it harder for everybody else to get up into space.”
The Federal Communications Commission has nearly 65,000 applications for satellites on its docket according to the CEO of Astroscale.
Here’s what’s ahead:
And that’s just in the U.S.
Collisions, called “conjunctions,” happen all the time, but serious incidents are extremely rare. The biggest occurred in 2009 between a U.S. and Russian satellite. Another happened two years earlier when China intentionally destroyed a dead satellite, causing a big mess that will never go away.
Trash created by these events collides with other objects, creating more debris, snowballing into something called the Kessler Effect.
As space gets more crowded, it’s becoming harder for everybody to stay on top of where everyone else is, especially when a satellite changes position.
“It's not a matter of if another accident's gonna happen. We know it's going to,” says Astroscale’s Chris Blackerby, who used to work at NASA. “It'll be like saying, ‘How often does a pandemic happen, really? Do we really need to prepare for a pandemic?’”
“Space is big,” says Peter Beck, CEO of RocketLab. “The probability [of catastrophe] is low, but the consequence is incredibly high.”
Most satellites fly in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which is anything under 1,200 miles above the planet’s surface. This is also where most space junk is. The International Space Station orbits here at about 250 miles up, below the heaviest traffic.
Many LEO satellites are low enough that once they’re no longer useful, they circle back down into the atmosphere, where they disintegrate.
NASA says anything flying below 370 miles up falls back to Earth after several years. At 500 miles, it takes decades. Above 620 miles, it’s a century or more. Far above that are hundreds of geosynchronous satellites and parts of rocket stages. That stuff is never coming down.
The European Space Agency says the main source of debris creation is leftover fuel that ignites. “The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of masses and imparted velocities.”
The space station has come close to these little pellets of fast-moving trash about 30 times, and once in a while there’s a hit.
Collision avoidance relies on everyone keeping tabs on everyone else. Peter Beck of RocketLab says that process is still a little informal. “Somebody picks up a phone at 2 a.m. in Europe and calls somebody in America and says, ‘Hey, look, we’re gonna have a conjunction here. We need to move the satellite.’ It’s just not well-organized.”
Peter says the situation is only going to get worse unless some sort of internationally agreed-upon protocols and oversight are established.
Two years ago, the ESA said it had to move one of its satellites to avoid colliding with one that’s part of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.
Hugh Lewis, who heads the U.K.-based Astronautics Research Group, says that Starlink is involved in about half of the 1,600 near-collisions reported per week, though most near-collisions involve another Starlink satellite. (A near collision is when two spacecraft come within half a mile of each other.)
Lewis told Space.com the problem is that Starlink occasionally tweaks a satellite’s position but doesn’t publicize it. “That causes problems for everybody else because no one knows where the satellite is going to be and what it is going to do in the next few days.”
SpaceX has an automated collision avoidance system, and the company says it works. There have been no collisions. It has committed to working with space agencies and rivals to make sure there are no problems. “We'd like to see some more communication on that,” says Chris Blackerby. Astroscale satellites are in the same orbital traffic lanes.
In the meantime, what to do about all that trash?
Entrepreneurs see value in removing space debris.
Steve Wozniak has created a startup called Privateer which plans to launch a fleet of satellites to create a comprehensive and shareable database tracking where space junk is located.
Of course, a fleet of satellites and the rockets launching them kinda adds to the clutter.
Here are some specific technologies being developed by other companies.
The appropriately named ClearSpace plans to test a spiderlike spacecraft to capture and remove a piece of old space junk in 2025. The video is very cool.
Last year two “dummy” satellites built by a Boeing subsidiary launched to test a sail concept. One of the dummies included a sail that could be deployed to move the satellite down into the atmosphere, where it would burn up. The idea is that future satellites could deploy the sail after they “die” to bring them out of orbit much faster.
The sail worked. The satellite returned to Earth eight months later. The other satellite without the sail is still up there, and will be for seven years.
This technology works in the lowest of LEO, because there are still a few molecules of atmosphere that a sail can catch to change trajectory.
One of the more interesting experiments is being conducted by Astroscale. Earlier this year it launched two small satellites. One had a magnetic plate attached to it and played the role of a dead piece of space junk. The other was a “servicing” satellite with its own magnet.
The first phase of the experiment tested whether the “servicing” satellite could attach itself to the “dead” satellite via the magnetic plate. The goal would be to eventually nudge the dead satellite into an orbit that sends it back into the atmosphere.
This video shows what the process would look like.
In real life, the first phase was a success. The servicing satellite “captured” the other satellite with its magnet.
Here’s “Mission Control” in Japan reacting (also in real life).
Astroscale is targeting space junk that’s at least 375 miles up, because objects there take 25 years to run out of power and be pulled back naturally into the atmosphere. “A quarter of a century to allow something to stay in space is too long,” says Chris Blackerby.
Eventually the company wants to go much higher and start nudging back down truly massive pieces of upper rocket stages or larger satellites. “What we would do is grab it, bring it down to a lower altitude, release it, and then go back up and grab another piece,” Chris says, adding that Astroscale would control the path down to avoid hitting other debris along the way, something he says the sail concept can’t do.
Astroscale is now selling the magnets to satellite companies as equipment to install before launch. They’ve raised $300 million and signed agreements for future work with Japan, New Zealand, the U.K. and Virgin Orbit… but not NASA. More on NASA in a minute.
WHAT ABOUT THE ROCKET?
RocketLab is a company based in California known for its smaller, strategic Electron rocket. This may be a perfect fit for targeting debris. “We can deliver you right to your doorstep,” says CEO Peter Beck. He feels strongly about the need to do something about space junk. (RocketLab was also used to launch the satellite sail experiment.)
Of course, launching rockets to clean up debris… adds more debris.
So companies are working on how to reduce the trash created while removing the trash.
“We're focused on not junking up space in the first instance,” says Viasat’s John Janka. One way to do that is to launch multiple satellites on one rocket, which is happening as satellites become smaller. (Also, smaller satellites provide smaller targets for debris.)
SpaceX has famously reused the lower stages of its Falcon 9 rocket, but the upper stages have been left in orbit. Sometimes they come back into the atmosphere and burn up, sometimes they don’t. For its massive new rocket, Starship, SpaceX plans to bring back and reuse both stages of the rocket.
RocketLab is redesigning its Electron rocket so that only a small part stays in space. That upper part, called the “kick stage,” could end up serving as a satellite on its own. Or it could service other satellites to extend life (something Northrop Grumman has done). Or the kick stage could be repositioned to come back into the atmosphere to burn up… leaving no footprint behind, like it was never there.
WHERE’S NASA IN ALL THIS?
When I reached out to NASA about its thoughts on space debris removal experiments, I was told the agency was more interested in preventing future trash rather than cleaning up the existing mess.
“NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (OPDO) is only involved in the mitigation (prevention) of new and long-lived orbital debris in the space environment. We don’t do any work to actively remove orbital debris that already exists. Likewise, it would be inappropriate for NASA employees to offer opinions on private companies planning to engage in this work.”
Welp, okay then.
Everyone I spoke with says it may be up to governments to take the lead in cleaning up space and preventing more junk in the future. There needs to be some sort of space traffic management system.
But while the ESA and countries like Japan are starting to discuss it, there hasn’t been a lot of action, especially in the U.S.
“Congress has been talking about authorizing the Commerce Department to have a broader role when it comes to managing space, but they haven't funded them,” says John Janka from Viasat. “A lot of people aren't being responsible, and the only way to deal with this is for regulators to not give them authorizations [to launch].”
“This is gonna sound a little bit cynical, but humans tend to be motivated by two things,” says RocketLab’s Peter Beck. “One is when things are going really well, and one is when things go really badly.” He fears that people won’t take debris seriously until there’s a catastrophe.
No matter what happens, some space junk will never be vacuumed up. It’s just too small.
“We're never gonna clean all that up,” says Chris from Astroscale. “The little pieces are gonna be there… let's bring down those big pieces before they create more little pieces.”
Well, don’t you feel better now? At least you’re better informed. What should we do about space junk? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment.
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Cover art from Getty Images.