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The Traffic Jam in Space Is Getting Worse

satellites and some space debris solutions

It’s an amazing time to be alive. Our ability to readily communicate across the globe, predict global weather patterns, and share information is quite impressive, and these achievements have been the result of many technological advances over the last few decades. But none are more important that those involving space satellites. Not-so-quietly, thousands of satellites have been placed in Earth’s orbit to assist with these tasks. And within coming years, the number of such devices in orbit will increase exponentially. However, along with this will come some new issues that weren’t present before this era of advanced telecommunications. Specifically, the rising amount of satellite debris and space junk will pose ever-increasing problems. Thus, anticipating these issues and devising space debris solutions in advance will be paramount.

space debris solutions above the Earth
Lots of space junk means we need space debris solutions.

(The small satellite market has reshaped communications–read how in this Bold story.)

Fueled by the growing space economy, the satellite industry is without question big industry today. The ability to successfully launch satellites into various orbits via routine space travel accounts for much of this growth. But satellites don’t last forever, and this is already creating concerns over space debris and space junk. Not only could such debris cause collisions and mishaps. But as this space junk accumulates, it might even disrupt the planet’s protective atmospheres. As a result, scientists and researchers are calling for space debris solutions before it becomes an overwhelming issue. And based on projections for new satellite launches to come, the time for these solutions is now.

“The industry has been saying space is becoming more congested for years, but now reality is setting in and the pressure is on to address the increasing risk in orbit.” – Melissa Quinn, General Manager, Slingshot Aerospace

The Satellite and Space Economy

Recent totals for existing satellites in space depict just how reliant we have become in these devices. Over 12,500 satellites now exist with the majority being in Earth’s lower orbit, which is within 2,000 kilometers of the planet’s surface. The remaining ones, which are much larger in size, occupy Earth’s geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above the planet. Both sets are highly important to today’s telecommunications. These structures not only facilitate high-speed Internet in some cases but also weather forecasts and military defense systems. And our reliance on them is growing by the month. This is why forecasts predict over 100,000 satellites will be in place within the decade.

a satellite in orbit that may be junk
At some point, someone is going to make a lot of money being a garbage man in space.

Unfortunately, however, as the number of orbital satellites expand, so does satellite debris and space junk. When these satellites reach the end of their life, these dead spacecraft take up space and pose serious threats. For one, they can cause collisions with other satellites and spacecraft. For example, Elon Musk’s Starlink system reported over 25,000 avoidance maneuvers in a six-month period related to satellite debris and space junk. This debris can also cause problems upon their reentry into the Earth. Many ignite and disintegrate at the time, contributing even further to atmospheric debris and particles. If space debris solutions are not devised, experts foresee major issues for existing and new satellites and spacecraft. We might be on the front of the curve in this regard. But failing to identify space debris solutions now could be much more costly later.

“We could get to 100,000 satellites in 10 to 15 years.” – Dr. Jonathan McDowell, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Bigger Issues Involving Space Debris

satellite debris and space junk in orbit
Satellite debris and space junk circle the planet. Who going to clean up this mess?

Certainly, collisions and explosions related to satellite debris and space junk are primary worries. But as the number of dead satellites increase, there are some additional concerns as well. Scientists have also suggested that these materials could also affect the protective plasma layer that surrounds the Earth. It is this layer that provides a buffer from the radiation and heat from the Sun. Not only might this debris further damage the Earth’s ozone and contribute to global warming. But satellite particles might also upset the magnetic properties of the planet. Known as the magnetosphere, aluminum particles that exist within satellite debris and space junk could be disruptive. If significant enough, this could alter a variety of properties of the planet that exceed well beyond weather, tides, and communications.

While problems related to ionosphere and magnetosphere may be a long time away, such scientists are calling for space debris solutions now. Efforts thus far to remove dead satellites have been unimpressive. At the present time, there are a reported 500+ dead satellites in what is known as the graveyard orbit. This orbit exists beyond the geosynchronous orbit. However, only 25 of these were recovered last year and removed. This also does not account for the significant satellite debris and space junk in lower orbits. Reportedly, around 3,300 satellites are now inactive in this region with nearly 200 retired last year. Without space debris solutions that remove these inactive devices, the problem is only going to get worse. Therefore, impacts on the Earth’s outer orbital layers might be sooner than anticipated.

“The problem is that space, contrary to popular belief, isn’t really a giant, self-cleaning void. Space holds systems like the magnetosphere that keep us alive and supplied with oxygen by protecting our atmosphere.” – Sierra Solter, plasma physicist, engineer, and researcher heliophysics and aerospace

A Thorn in the Space Economy’s Side

The space economy is already big business, and it’s expected to expand exponentially in coming years. SpaceX and Starlink systems have provided needed infrastructure in this regard. And satellite companies are taking full advantage of these opportunities despite rising satellite debris and space junk. By the 2030’s, hourly launches of satellites into orbit are probable as are constant satellite replacements. But what is currently lacking are space debris solutions to address removal of these inactive devices. If no such solution evolves, then the costs to the space economy will be substantial. Already, collisions have occurred and major insurance claims paid. With a greater amount of space debris, the chance of these mishaps will increase, and insurers will respond accordingly. If planetary and climate reasons aren’t enough, perhaps these economic realities will encourage a more proactive approach.

 

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