With most problems there is a normal progression. We recognize a problem. We then talk about it and sometimes talk around it — as in the case of climate change. Finally, we actually try to solve it. In the case of space debris, it is time we humans seriously start to solve this growing problem if we wish to remain a spacefaring race into the future and open up space to new commercial opportunities.
Twenty five years ago the issue of space debris was an obscure one. Only a handful of specialists at the space agencies spent time addressing this problem. Even a decade ago, few people outside the space industry were aware of the so-called Kessler Syndrome and the threat projected by NASA’s Donald Kessler of an increasing cascade of space garbage that could escalate over time to be completely out of control. When the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003 and its debris created a real and quantifiable risk to air traffic, public awareness began to rise. With the crash back to Earth of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) in September, the news media alerted the world that the “sky was falling” and that this could be a real danger.
In the past few weeks there has come a Niagara-like outpouring of concern around the world. In November there is to be a global workshop on orbital debris in Montreal. This is to be followed by an International Space University Symposium on this same subject in France. The United Nations has finally adopted voluntary guidelines to control the creation of space debris, and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) also has addressed this issue, at least in terms of limiting new debris.
Peter Martinez of the South African Space Agency heads a new Working Group on Space Sustainability established by the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). This panel is seeking to develop unanimously agreed processes to identify space debris and perhaps to sanction the removal of debris from orbit. The Space Data Association is now daily coordinating the orbital characteristics for many of the communications satellites of commercial operators.
At the popular level, comic strips are talking about the raining down of orbital debris. You can even turn on your television and see recruitment ads for the U.S. Air Force that feature technicians firing thrusters to move military satellites to avoid narrow collisions. These vivid — and, fortunately, overstated — examples of space situational awareness show satellites avoiding collision by the slimmest of split-second margins. Overall the result is that people in the general public are beginning to recognize the serious problem of not only debris raining down on their home, but debris hitting airplanes or key satellites.
In 1980, there were fewer than 5,400 sizeable objects in space being tracked; by 2010, this number of large space debris objects had increased to 15,639. The 2009 collision of the Iridium and the Russian Kosmos satellite alone created thousands of new debris elements, as did the Chinese missile destruction of one of their defunct satellites in 2007. There is now a quite substantial buildup of microelements too small to track (under 4 centimeters); they number in the millions. These microelements, which travel at thousands of miles an hour, can do substantial damage.
There are a variety of methods that might be used to remove space debris from orbit, but unfortunately the technology is unproven and some of the techniques could be considered “space weapons.” These techniques include: ground based lasers, solar sail devices, tether-deployed nets, space mist, robotic systems and adhesives. And this is not an exhaustive list.
The development of new commercial space launch capabilities and commercial space stations, and the possibility of hyperspace vehicles for commercial aerospace travel that might fly at Mach 6 from London to Australia, suggest that we need to get beyond talking about space debris and begin remediation practices to clear space of a serious threat.
Organizations such as the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety and the International Space Safety Foundation (where I currently serve as acting president) are studying viable methods to clear the skies to make space applications and exploration viable in the decades ahead. One idea is to create an entity similar to Arianespace or Intelsat assigned this responsibility. Another is to look at the problem as one that could be addressed in a manner quite parallel to purchasing launch insurance. Commercial satellite operators already invest 15 percent or more in insurance to shield themselves against a launch or in-orbit satellite failure. It would seem reasonable for a global satellite orbital debris remediation fund to be established within one or more international banks. Under this arrangement, the U.N. COPUOS would create an official register of orbital debris items and license “competent entities” that could remove debris via technology that would be developed over time. Only a modest 5 percent fee for each launch could likely fund a viable debris removal operation. This is far less than launch insurance, and if some active mitigation program is not started now the entire future of commercial space could ultimately become at risk.
The problem is ultimately how we can shift everyone from talking about the orbital debris problem to actually implementing a viable action program to diminish the space junk in Earth orbit. That would guarantee a solution being achieved over the next 25 years and thus ensure secure access to space and safety for airline passengers and for new commercial space applications and transportation in coming decades.
Joseph N. Pelton is former dean of the International Space University and president of the International Space Safety Foundation.