Space: How much debris can space take?

When we think about sustainability, recycling or even just general litter we only really consider what’s in our oceans, on the land or in our homes because this is apparent, manageable and because we can physically see the issue. The original term for space debris was meant to mean natural debris which was located in our solar system such as meteoroids’, comets and asteroids however since the industrial revolution and the increasing technological advances this now means that we have now created a large amount of artificial debris surrounding our planet. This can constitute of man-made objects such as alive/dead satellites, used rocket parts, space stations and space shuttles and parts of these which have been collided with and destroyed.

As of 2016 there were over 17,000 trackable pieces of artificial objects located in orbit surrounding our atmosphere. These are only the pieces which were large enough to be readable however there were roughly 170 million pieces of debris which are smaller than 1 cm estimated as a result of collisions and destruction. It is considered that the main countries responsible for the amount of artificial debris are the USA, Russia and China due to their size, requirements and their status as global leaders.

There Is an underlying concern in regards to earth being so overwhelmed with space debris that it will make it very difficult to carry out explorations because of the likelihood of colliding with said debris. The debris can stay in orbit for hundreds of years and objects in an even higher orbital gravitation for thousands. Just one collision can cause and create thousands of pieces of high-speed debris which then collides with space crafts by causing sandblasting to solar panels and optics like star trackers and telescopes which cannot be covered due to reducing visibility.

So how do we clean up space? Surely this is an almost impossible task with more and more debris mounting up how do we make space a space place for travel again? 

First of all, the main goal of trying to get rid of space debris is to prevent a scenario called Kessler Syndrome. It is the notion which was provided by American astrophysicist Donald Kessler who predicted after the millennium that space junk would increase exponentially over time with debris accumulating faster than it is removed. It is a critical point that is reach where one collision can set off another and has a devastating domino effect.

Secondly there are regulatory effects in place. International Law dictates that space debris belongs to its original owner, what this means it cannot be removed without permission. This makes the clean up difficult when multiple countries own multiple satellites and removing ones which are thought to be dead can be considered an act of war.

In September 2018 BBC news documented that a SpaceX British satellite at 300 km above earth had successfully deployed a net into orbit to capture space debris. This has been dubbed the RemoveDebris Satellite but is a stepping stone to clearing up space.

Airbus is also on the case with an old school harpoon. The harpoon is launched into space to snare rogue satellites and pull them out of orbit. It is attached to a spacecraft and once captured the chase vehicle will then launch back down into earths atmosphere and burn up on re-entry. The main object that Airbus have an interest in is Europe’s Envisat Earth Observation Platform weighting at 8 ton’s which died in 2012. 

Space debris as mentioned at the start of this article isn’t a known or obvious form of littering that we are aware of on an average day but it is still an important one the contributes to the success of the overall global sustainability of our planet.

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By Earth Restoration Service Blog Writer Bianca Fogah

Images from WikiMedia