New plan to deal with deadly space debris which could destroy satellites

Rob Waugh
·3 min read
artist's interpretation of space trash objects circling planet Earth, banner format
Thousands of pieces of debris orbit our Earth. (Getty)

Since 1957, thousands of space launches have left Earth surrounded by orbiting space debris, with up to 26,000 objects now tracked.

There are up to 900,000 smaller objects – and the pollution is even brightening the night sky.

This week, scientists gathered for the virtual eighth European Conference on Space Debris from Darmstadt, Germany.

Experts will discuss plans for the world's first mission to remove space debris – ClearSpace-1 – for launch in 2025.

Speaking at the conference, Space Station astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti talked of the ever-present risk of impact and hull breaches, even on the well-protected International Space Station (ISS).

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Cristoforetti said: “We train for these scenarios, there is a tool bag where we can repair a breach in the hull.

“We had a couple of collision avoidance manoeuvres while I was on the station, it was not a dramatic event.

“We are very conservative with the Space Station, it’s surrounded by a big ‘pizza box’ of shields – and any debris that is tracked and is likely to come into that area, we avoid.

“The concern is not those bigger pieces, something smaller that escapes those situations of situational information – but could still not breach."

Recent years have shown unprecedented growth, primarily in small and commercial satellites in low-Earth orbits. 

Large constellations are being deployed, such as Elon Musk's Starlink satellites.

Today, a total of about 2,800 objects are functional spacecraft. The remaining are space debris such as objects which no longer serve any useful purpose.

Samantha Cristoforetti, Italian European Space Agency astronaut, guest during the XXXII Turin International Book Fair at at Lingotto Fiere on May 09, 2019 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Massimiliano Ferraro/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Samantha Cristoforetti, Italian European Space Agency astronaut. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Most of the routinely tracked objects are fragments from about 550 break-ups, explosions, collisions or anomalous events, resulting in fragmentation of satellites or rocket bodies.

In addition, there is evidence of a much larger population of debris that cannot be tracked operationally.

An estimated number of 900,000 objects larger than one centimetre and 128 million objects larger than one millimetre are thought to be in Earth's orbit.

There are currently over 129 million objects larger than one millimetre in orbits around Earth. These range from inactive satellites to flakes of paint.

But no matter how small the item of debris, anything traveling up to 56,000km/h in an orbit is dangerous if it comes into contact with the many satellites that connect us around the world, be it for GPS, mobile phone data or internet connectivity.

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Man-made objects orbiting Earth have already brightened the night sky by 10%, far more than previously believed, new research has shown.

It means that Earth has already passed a threshold that was set by astronomers 40 years ago, meaning our planet is “light polluted”.

The researchers warn that the brightening of the sky is getting worse thanks to new satellite technologies such as ‘mega constellations’.

It could mean that star-gazers can no longer pick out iconic sights such as the clouds of the Milky Way, the researchers have warned.

The research is the first to be based on the overall impact of space objects, rather than the effect of individual satellites.

The study included both functioning satellites, plus assorted debris such as spent rocket stages.

The research was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

Miroslav Kocifaj, of the Slovak Academy of Sciences and Comenius University in Slovakia, said: "Our primary motivation was to estimate the potential contribution to night sky brightness from external sources, such as space objects in Earth's orbit.

“We expected the sky brightness increase would be marginal, if any, but our first theoretical estimates have proved extremely surprising and thus encouraged us to report our results promptly."

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