There is an urgent need to remove orbiting space debris and to fly satellites in the future without creating new fragments, Europe’s largest-ever space-debris conference announced. The findings from the 6th European Conference on Space Debris were released during the concluding press briefing at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Future space missions must be sustainable, including safe disposal when they are completed. The current levels mean that we must soon begin removing space debris from orbit, with research and development urgently needed for pilot ‘cleaning’ missions.
More importantly, the number of useless items in space orbit around Earth has tripled the last 25 years:
Earth’s orbital field has started to look like a hillbilly’s front yard, and if we’re don’t start cleaning up the clutter now, the junk will start crashing into each other, causing extensive damage to the things we actually want up there. That’s the report coming out of this month’s four day space conference in Darmstadt, Germany, and to be quiet honest, the figures themselves are perhaps even more alarming. According to the AFP, the number of useless items orbiting around the Earth has tripled since 1978. There are now more than 23,000 objects (space debris) at least four inches across that are spinning around the planet at more than 15,000 miles per hour, and math tells us these items will eventually crash into each other. Because of all the kinetic energy such a crash would create, it’s entirely possible it could punch a hole in the International Space Station or even destroy functioning satellites, which would only add to our junk problem. Thus far, there have been several proposals for retrieving the items or pushing them further out into space, but at the moment, all of those ideas are very much still in the conception phase. Hopefully, a solid choice will emerge from the pack, allowing the international community to come together and implement said idea to clear up space.
But, the most dangerous thing is that space objects usually travel at speeds about 40 times faster than airplanes:
Five to 10 large objects need to be collected from space a year to help cut down on smashes and stem the risk of fragments being sprayed into space that could cause more damage, it said. Scientists estimate there are about 29,000 objects larger than 10 cm (four inches) orbiting Earth at average speeds of 25,000 kph (15,500 mph) — about 40 times faster than airplanes travel. At that speed, even small pieces of fast-traveling debris can damage or destroy spacecraft and satellites — which could cost billions of dollars to replace and disrupt mobile phone communication or satellite navigation. ”Within a few decades, there are going to be collisions among large objects that will create fragments that can do further damage,” Heiner Klinkrad, the head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, told Reuters. ”The only way to keep this from happening is to go up there and remove them,” he said. “The longer you wait, the more difficult and far more expensive it is going to be.”
On the other hand, is it technically feasible to capture space debris by using satellites?:
Thomas Schildknecht, an astronomer at the University of Bern, Switzerland, said it would be technically feasible to send a satellite into space to capture objects with a net and harpoon. But more elaborate proposals could also work, Schildknecht said. These include a satellite firing electrically charged atoms – or ions – at an object to gradually slow it down and thereby drag it back to Earth. Ground-based lasers could be used in the same way, though only for very small objects, he said. For larger objects like ESA’s 18,000-pound (8,100-kilogram) Envisat, which broke down last year, a dedicated robot could be built which would be sent on a suicide mission to bring the satellite down safely. Such missions could cost up to $200 million each. ”I’m confident that we will see demonstration missions in the near future,” said Schildknecht. ESA says testing of new technologies for cleaning up space needs to start soon because the amount of junk spinning uncontrollably through orbit is growing.
Finally, it is more than clear that international space agencies have to overcome the huge economic cost or even cooperate for removing dangerous space debris, before it is too late for taking action!