Over the course of the last several years, major achievements have been made in relation to space travel and development. Last year saw the billionaire space race in full competition mode, and a return to the moon soon seems inevitable. Elon Musk is developing his Starlink system in an effort to improve broadband Internet access. And dozens of companies are exploring various industries beyond Earth’s realm. Without question, the space economy is blossoming right before our very eyes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be without its set of challenges. And one of those challenges involves space debris and the obstacles to be overcome with space junk removal.
Over the last several decades, an ever-increasing amount of space debris has accumulated, predominantly in Earth’s lower orbits. This debris ranges in size from tiny particles the size of a screw to much larger obsolescent satellites. Not only does is the accumulating space garbage bothersome from an environmental perspective. But it’s now posing serious threats to needed installations ranging from telecommunications to national defense. As a result, solutions are rapidly being sought that can expedite space junk removal sooner rather than later. But as one might expect, finding effective solutions to the problem is much harder than expected.
“This [space] debris and associated congestion threaten the long-term sustainability of the space domain. It demands action.” Gen. David Thompson, Vice Chief of Space Operations, U.S. Space Force
The Space Debris Problem
When it comes to space debris, it’s more than simply a volume problem. However, the amount of space garbage now in Earth’s low orbit is quite substantial. The Pentagon states it routinely tracks about 40,000 objects in space that are the size of a baseball or larger. But smaller pieces of space debris also exist and are even higher in number. Estimates suggest that these smaller fragments are ten times the amount of the larger ones. And they can cause a significant amount of damage as well. Over the last few years, the International Space Station has suffered cracked windows and damaged robotic arms from these fragments. And after a recent Russian satellite was purposefully detonated, ISS astronauts had to evacuate for safety.
Naturally, removing these fragments from space would be ideal, but space junk removal isn’t so simple. The fragments are routinely travelling more than 15,000 miles per hour, and they are also tumbling and rotating unpredictably. Therefore, any space junk removal solution has to account for this, and thus far, proposals aren’t cheap. Designing spacecraft that can remove old rocket stages, dead satellites, and small space debris is challenging, to say the least. But there’s little question that something has to be done. Unless effective space junk removal operations are developed, catastrophes will become increasingly more likely.
“Just as we rely on the government to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, we have to rely on the government to protect the resource and the global commons of low Earth orbit.” – James Lowenthal, Professor of Astronomy, Smith College, Massachusetts
Calling All Space Garbage Collectors
The Pentagon recognizes the problem the nation faces when it comes to rising space debris volumes. Not only can these fragments interfere with the ISS and telecommunication operations. But more importantly, they can take out military equipment used for a variety of operations. This includes various systems and satellite networks involved in the GPS-guidance of munitions and missiles as well as espionage technologies. Thus, it’s not only a cost and inconvenience issue but one of national security as well. As a result, the Pentagon is soliciting help from private contractors to provide space junk removal solutions.
The Pentagon’s current efforts in this regard involve its Orbital Prime Program. As part of this program, companies with space junk removal proposals can receive funding based on merit. During the first round of the program, qualified companies can receive up to $250,000 in funding. If they make it to the second round, the support increases to $1.5 million. During the final round, test demonstrations are then required before advancing further. Of course, the Pentagon is not the only agency pursuing space debris solutions. The European Space Agency is doing the same, supporting its own space junk removal process as well.
“We want the space economy to grow. We want to be an enabler of that. And we want to make sure that we’re doing that long term and that environment is there for future generations.” – Ron Lopez, President and Managing Director of Astroscale U.S
Companies in the Space Junk Removal Business
While effective space junk removal solutions have yet to be developed, some are investing heavily in the effort. For example, one company planning to participate in the Orbital Prime Program is Astroscale. Headquartered in Japan, Astroscale also has an office located in Denver, Colorado. Its plans to remove space debris from orbit involve designing spacecraft that can mimic a fragments spin and speed. Once this enables the spacecraft to move alongside the debris, a large magnet collects the object for removal. Thus far, the company has yet to produce a functional model. But they remain optimistic that they can overcome existing obstacles and eventually succeed.
Another company that’s pursuing solutions for space junk removal is Clear Space. As the name implies, this Swiss company also hopes to develop feasible ways to remove space debris from low Earth orbit. Instead of using a magnet, however, they have designed a spacecraft with long arms that grab and remove fragments through a clasping mechanism. Of course, it too will have to travel alongside any space debris present, which is not necessarily easy. Thus far, Clear Space has partnered with the European Space Agency in efforts to remove space garbage.
It Takes an International Village
In considering space debris that currently exists, the U.S., Russia and China account for the vast majority. From this perspective, it might be assumed that each nation should address their own space junk removal solutions. But in actuality, this is a global problem, and unless effective strategies are developed, space debris could significantly hinder progress. International collaboration in developing shared space junk removal solutions is thus needed. Private businesses will definitely play a notable role. But support from national governments will be required if the space economy is to move forward efficiently.