ESA Director General calls for aggressive action on space debris

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BREMEN, Germany — Rather than waiting for international consensus on new measures to prevent space debris, space agencies and companies should take immediate action, Jan Woerner, European Space Agency director general, said Nov. 19 at the Space Tech Expo Europe here.

“We need to act immediately and when I say ‘we’ I mean each and every one without looking to the others and saying, ‘Before there is regulation, I will not do anything,’” Woerner said.

Specifically, Woerner cited concerns about the megaconstellations and the impact they will have on space debris. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has approved SpaceX plans to operate a constellation of 12,000 Starlink broadband satellites. In October, SpaceX filed paperwork with the International Telecommunications Union for 30,000 additional satellites.

The new constellations will not be 100 percent reliable, Woerner said. If a constellation of 42,000 satellites exhibits 95 or 97 percent reliability, then between 1,260 and 2,100 satellites would not work as intended.

“In the future, each and every one who is launching a satellite should — by morals, by ethics, not looking for regulation — make sure this satellite does not become space debris tomorrow,” Woerner said. “We don’t have to wait all the time for regulations.”

Satellite operators should ensure their satellites have redundant active deorbiting systems, hire another company to deorbit their satellites or pay a deposit to a space agency to deorbit satellites if they fail to do so, Woerner said.

When the ESA Ministerial Council meets Nov. 27 and 28, Woerner said he will propose a debris mitigation program that includes in-orbit servicing, active debris removal and active debris avoidance. By active debris avoidance, Woerner said he is referring to a system that directly deorbits any part of the spacecraft that normally would remain in space, creating additional space debris.