Space Junk Is Spreading, Creating the Risk of No-Go Zones for Satellites

A Russian missile strike that destroyed an unmanned satellite last week highlighted the danger of space debris, as SpaceX (and Boeing Co.) plan to send as many as 65,000 commercial spacecraft in orbit within the coming years.

An anti-satellite missile smashed the Russian orbiter in at least 1,500 parts, creating a dense belt of debris that hurtles around Earth at speeds exceeding 17,000 miles per hour. Ground control was forced to wake the International Space Station’s crew to ask them to shut the hatches to get into the docked spacecraft.

This also contributed to space junk being accelerated by failed satellites, abandoned rocket boosters, and weapon tests. Technology entrepreneurs and defense firms have also announced plans for constellations of satellites to increase the number of countries in orbit by approximately 4,550.
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The Russian anti-satellite test “just makes everything worse,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, a group that works for sustainable use of space.

“It’s not like the movie ‘Gravity’ where one thing happens and everything goes ‘boom,’” Weeden said. Instead there is “a tipping point, where it starts to accelerate” and the orbital environment deteriorates over decades.

Low-Earth orbit is an area of major concern because because that’s where companies want to locate small observation and communications satellites. These include Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which has more than 1,700 Starlink satellites already orbiting and plans is asking regulators for permission to add 30,000 more to provide broadband internet from space.

U.S. Federal Communications Commission currently reviewing applications submitted by SpaceX and others looking to capitalize on the lower launch cost and increasing demand for data. Spacecraft in low orbits have a very short lag between users on ground and spacecraft. Boeing, Inc.’s Kuiper Systems LLC, and Astra Space Inc. were among companies submitting recent applications at the FCC for more than 35,000 satellites.

The FCC stated last year that collisions can create new debris and objects in low-Earth orbits. Because satellites use wireless frequencies, the agency regulates them.

Other regions have sufficient densities of orbital debris to lead some analysts to conclude that they are close to or have already reached a “runaway” status, where the debris population will grow indefinitely, the FCC said.

“We’re at a time of transformative change in the human use of space,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics Harvard & Smithsonian research institute. “We are seeing more and more satellites getting damaged by orbital debris hits. Occasionally satellites get destroyed.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has tallied that there are 4,550 active satellites orbiting the Earth, and that 3,790 of these orbits are in low-Earth orbit.

Viasat Inc. warns satellite operators of the risks posed by large constellations. Viasat Inc. says failure risk for at least some satellites can be high when many are orbiting.

With huge orbiting fleets, “dramatic increases in space collisions, and new space debris, are expected within just a few years,” Jim Bridenstine, a Viasat board member and former NASA administrator, told lawmakers at a U.S. Senate hearing last month.

Tracking space debris

NASA reports that the Department of Defense has tracked more than 27,000 pieces of orbital waste. Near-Earth orbits hold much more debris that’s too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions.

The International Space Station crew took refuge from the impact of the Russian strike on the Russian satellite Cosmos 1408, NASA stated in a November 15 statement.

Roughly a week before Monday’s missile strike by Russia, NASA moved the ISS to avoid a close encounter with debris remaining from a test by China that destroyed a weather satellite in 2007. NASA posted online on May 26, that the station had conducted 29 debris avoidance maneuvers, three of which were in 2020.

NASA maintains a long-standing set of guidelines to avoid debris. Maneuvers are usually small and use the station’s Russian thrusters, or the propulsion systems on one of the docked spacecraft that carry passengers from Earth.

The Cosmos debris could cause problems for Musk’s SpaceX, astronomers said.

“There’s a real risk in the coming weeks that you could lose some of the Starlinks because they get in the way of this debris,” said McDowell.

SpaceX didn’t return emailed queries requesting comment. Boeing representatives also refused to discuss the fleet risk.

McDowell said that nations are trying to find ways to minimize space debris. These techniques include using magnet plates to catch satellites or using nets and harpoons at the testing stage. McDowell suggested that we focus on the biggest pieces, which may ultimately cause the most fragmentation.

“At some point we have to start to clean this up,” he said.


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