In 1957, Sputnik became the first satellite launched into the earth’s orbit with Explorer I soon following after. At the time, space seemed vast, expansive, and infinite in scope. No one likely expected that there will be a need for waste management in space. But increasingly, space debris is becoming a real issue. There is a call for both public and private entities to help address these challenges for the future.
There are proposals and tests for solutions to address waste management in space. While the task for collecting and removing space debris is difficult, innovative ideas exist. As the amount of space debris continues to grow in size, these pursuits are both timely and essential. And examining which solutions seem to have the greatest potential offers insights into how we will manage the future space economy.
The Growing Demand for Waste Management in Space
Each year, more satellites end up on the earth’s orbit than those being removed. In fact, more than 4,000 satellites exist in space today with the majority non-functional. As a result, space debris from these pieces of equipment continues to expand along with other items. Therefore, an increasing need for waste management in space has evolved for both environmental and safety reasons.
At NASA, there is routine tracking and monitoring of these various pieces of space debris. Currently, more than 150,000 pieces of space debris between 1 and 10 cm in size orbit the earth. Likewise, more than 20,000 pieces greater than 10 cm in size exist as well. And estimates suggest that over 150 million pieces of space debris smaller than a centimeter have accumulated. From satellites to astronaut gloves, outer space is rapidly becoming a space dump.
Bold Steps in Waste Management in Space Solutions
Testing waste management in space solutions is difficult, to say the least. However, there are bold initiatives that show tremendous promise. One of the most exciting is the RemoveDEBRIS project, which is currently experimenting with space debris removal. The EU and some private investors co-sponsor the $18.5 million initiative to evaluate potential waste management in space strategies. Specifically, the team is evaluating a visual navigational system and space debris removal techniques using nets and harpoons. Surrey Satellite Technology, maker of the space debris removal satellite, has noted that this could provide a low-cost solution.
The above solution is designed for waste management in space for controlled space debris. Removing uncontrolled space debris, like non-responding satellites, is more challenging. In this regard, the European Space Agency has different ideas. By the end of 2019, they hope to begin testing e.Deorbit, a spacecraft for space debris removal. This endeavor has much broader implications for the removal of larger items currently cluttering space.
A Global Call to Action
Today, visions for space tourism, space manufacturing, and remote planetary residences are being proposed. But none of this will be possible or safe without effective waste management in the space program. Space debris travels at speeds of 30,000 mph and poses serious threats to spacecraft and satellites. In fact, NASA reported 21 near-collisions in 2018 alone requiring avoidance maneuvers. And with multiple nations pursuing space exploration, this problem is growing exponentially.
Certainly, the projects by the ESA and other private organizations are promising. They can do more in developing effective waste management in space program. There is a need to conduct waste disposal oversight by a global body, and space debris removal technologies need further support. Similarly, with rocket fuel being a major contributor to space debris, there is a requirement for lower-carbon energy resources. Lastly, there is a need to adopt collaborative regulatory policies by all nations as part of a waste management in space initiative. Through these efforts, we will be better able to ensure space is safe and a viable resource for our future.