Space Jammed: Satellite stakeholders meet to agree on a rubbish idea

13 Jan 2015

The rise of orbit trash, via ESA

In March, the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Clean Space initiative will see satellite manufacturers get together to discuss space rubbish, known as debris.

The ESA’s initiative is aimed at safeguarding both the terrestrial and space environments, which is fairly serious when you think of what a small bit of old satellite debris can do to a manned space craft – we’ve all seen Gravity, right?

According to ESA, there are more than 12,000 trackable items of space debris larger than 10cm orbiting Earth. This includes bits of old satellites and ‘spent upper stages and fragments of old missions’.

There’s also millions of smaller objects, with the hundreds of thousands of 1-10cm pieces all having the potential to create a hand-grenade-sized impact on collision.

These all present a ‘clear and present danger to current missions’, with and any potential collisions presumably putting all non-Sandra Bullock astronauts in grave danger. 

The ESA has forecasted that, by 2055, plenty of debris will be causing problems. This will be particularly prevalent at either Pole, which even today has the highest density of debris. Via ESA

“This workshop is an essential step for involving the whole European space sector in shaping the way forward for low-orbiting satellites,” explained ESA organiser, Jessica Delaval.

“Companies will have the opportunity to put forward their own technologies for debris mitigation.”

ESA guidelines mean that all satellites are removed from space within 25 years of their lifetime. Options to do this include enjoying a slight atmospheric drag so they break up on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, or dispatched ‘up to quieter graveyard orbits’.

“So mitigation methods are having to be built into new low-orbit missions, with important implications for their design – not least because any mass added to the platform means less is left for the payload, the part of the satellite that actually achieves the mission goal.”

Space debris graphic, via ESA. Size of debris is exaggerated, in comparison to Earth, to make it visible.

The Soviet Union’s first artificial satellite launch in 1957 started the trend of filling up space with our junk. During the Cold War, the USSR and USA’s space race in the 1960s exaggerated the trend, with the mid-60s also bringing about the age of TV satellites. In 1964, the first TV satellite was launched into a geostationary orbit in order to transmit the Olympic games from Tokyo.

Russia has relaxed its space programme since those days but other states and organisations have more than taken up the mantle, with the number of objects in Earth’s orbit rising by 200pc a year.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic