Two-thirds of satellites in orbit are dead and dangerous, ESA warns

27 Nov 2019

Image: © Petrovich12/

The issue of space junk is one of ESA’s biggest concerns, with most satellites now in orbit being dead and potentially hazardous.

Around two-thirds of the satellites orbiting Earth are dead, posing a “very big danger” to the planet, European ministers responsible for space have heard. The European Space Agency (ESA) is proposing a mission to tackle the growing problem of space debris, its director general said.

Speaking at the agency’s ministerial council in Seville, Spain, Johann-Dietrich Wörner also spoke about a mission to detect and prevent hazards posed by meteorites, saying the human race does not want to be wiped out in the same manner as dinosaurs. Wörner also identified solar flares as a potential danger to Earth.

He added that, along with NASA, the ESA is working on a mission of “playing billiards in space” when addressing the issue of asteroids that are on a direct collision course with Earth.

Discussing the issue of space debris, Wörner said that only 1,500 satellites out of almost 4,500 in orbit today are actually functioning.

“Therefore we are proposing a mission where we bring down some ESA-owned assets which are still flying around the Earth,” he added.

“And, at the same time, we would also demonstrate that it’s possible to avoid future space debris by doing some direct de-orbiting.”

Samples versus astronauts

Speaking at the opening session of the meeting, Wörner said that given today’s technology it would be “smart” to look at bringing samples back from Mars, rather than putting astronauts on the Red Planet.

“This mission looks very simple – you fly to Mars, you get some samples back,” he said.

However, he explained that it would involve a US rover collecting samples and leaving them in tiny containers on the planet’s surface, to be collected by an ESA rover once it had moved on to another area.

After finding the samples, the European rover would put them in a bigger container and take them to a small launch site where it would be launched into the planet’s orbit.

Wörner added: “And then a European mission will go there, get this container and bring it back to the Earth.”

The council brings together ESA’s member states and observers every two to three years to decide on new proposals and funding for ESA’s next years of work.

– PA Media, with additional reporting from Colm Gorey