Junk Problems and Solutions
Space junk is a growing problem, with tens of thousands of pieces currently in orbit. Even a small object can damage satellites or other spacecraft. But space junk isn’t an all-or-nothing problem. Luckily, there are several solutions and back-up plans for mitigation strategies. These solutions range from active debris removal to mitigation plans. But the goal should be to stop space junk from causing a crisis, and to work toward a more sustainable future.
Space junk is not a cure-all
One potential solution is a technological demonstration mission, like the European Space Agency’s ELSA-d. The ELSA-d satellite uses magnetic satellite catching technology. It successfully completed the first satellite catching test on August 25, 2021, and is now moving on to the next phase of space junk removal. Clearly, a space junk removal project is not a panacea, but it is a step in the right direction.
The problem is more complicated than simply getting rid of the debris. Many spacecraft shed pieces of equipment, bolts, and lens caps that are not used. Others are unable to return, and so rusty paint flakes can end up in the space environment. Paint flecks can even damage ISS windows. The problem isn’t limited to space junk. Scientists estimate that there are more than half a million pieces of space junk the size of a paint chip in orbit.
Active debris removal is a back-up plan for mitigation plans
Developing and implementing active debris removal technology is a crucial step in stabilizing the population of orbital debris. While the primary source of debris is collisions, the growing population is a back-up plan in case new objects are not disposed of properly. The risk of colliding with other objects in orbit is an ongoing concern, but inaction could lead to Kessler Syndrome, a runaway chain reaction of collisions, rendering large tracts of LEO unusable and increasing the chance of collisions.
The revised ODMSP requires that active debris removal operations follow objectives that are also applicable to other operational activities. In order to demonstrate its capability, Astroscale is currently working on a demonstration mission for JAXA. The mission, dubbed ADRAS-J, will inspect the upper stage of a Japanese launch, leaving the reentry vehicle in orbit. The agency is also developing a back-up plan for mitigation plans.
Kessler syndrome causes collisions between spacecraft
A chain of events is called a “Kessler syndrome” when a satellite is shattered by space debris or collides with another satellite. It creates a domino effect, rendering certain orbits useless for human activities. The most common type of damage caused by a collision is communication services, which often rely on satellites to transmit messages. So, how do we prevent this kind of catastrophe? Check out this interesting article.
In 1978, a NASA scientist named Don Kessler outlined a risk of orbital debris causing collisions between spacecraft. The theory developed from a 1978 paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which predicted that the number of orbital debris would increase exponentially. The research focused on assessing the risks associated with such collisions and the possible consequences for the space industry in the future.