ESA warns about urgent need to act on space debris

25 Apr 2013

ESA concept for a future deorbit mission

There is an urgent need to remove orbiting space debris that could potentially disrupt future satellites and to fly satellites in the future without creating new fragments – that is the main message to come from the European Space Agency (ESA) at a European conference on space debris that wrapped up today.

The conference had been running at the ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, since 18 April to give experts a platform to share their latest research findings and discuss potential solutions to the space debris problem.

Human exploration of outer space has created thousands of fragments of rubbish, known as space debris. To date there have been some 5,000 successful satellite launches and around 17,000 man-made objects are being regularly monitored from the ground. According to the ESA some 10,000 of these objects are fragments created by more than 250 explosions and collisions that have happened in orbit. Only 7pc of the monitored objects are functioning satellites.

At closing speeds reaching 50,000km hour, the ESA suggests that even the smallest bits of space debris can cause serious harm to a satellite or spacecraft. In January of last year, for example, the International Space Station boosted itself to a higher altitude to avoid a possible collision with orbital debris.

R&D into new technologies to remove space junk

The ESA said today that the current levels of space debris mean that we must soon begin removing debris from orbit, with research and development urgently needed for pilot ‘cleaning’ missions.

“There is a wide and strong expert consensus on the pressing need to act now to begin debris removal activities,” said Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office.

The removal of space debris is an environmental problem of global dimensions, claimed the ESA.

“Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earth’s changing climate some 20 years ago,” said Klinkrad.

At the moment there are around 1,000 satellites in orbit around the Earth. The ESA estimates that the cost of replacing these satellites would come in the region of circa €100bn.

While measures to stop further debris creation and the deorbiting of defunct satellites would be “technically demanding” and costly, Klinkrad said that there is no other alternative if we want to protect space as a resource for critical satellite infrastructure.

“Their direct costs and the costs of losing them will by far exceed the cost of remedial activities,” he said.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic