Did We Break Space?

Too much orbital trash could leave us earthbound — and without the satellites we’ve come to rely on.

Photobombing launch frog is the least of NASA's space debris concerns.
National Journal
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Alex Brown
Jan. 28, 2014, midnight

No one really knows what an out­er-space garbage­man would look like. Nor does any­one want to find out. But our gradu­al ac­cu­mu­la­tion of or­bit­al trash is giv­ing us nar­row­er and nar­row­er win­dows from which to leave the Earth — and caus­ing head­aches and danger for the as­tro­nauts and equip­ment already in or­bit.

In space, there are no tow trucks to clear dis­abled equip­ment. And derel­ict hunks of met­al don’t sit by the side of the road — they hurtle around at 17,000 mph. At that speed, even a golf ball-sized ob­ject has the po­ten­tial to take out a satel­lite sys­tem.

The Air Force cur­rently tracks about 23,000 pieces of space debris. Its radar can see an ob­ject the size of a bas­ket­ball about 15 miles away. But there are about half a mil­lion more debris bits it can’t see. That has raised fears about the Kessler syn­drome, a scen­ario put forth by a NASA sci­ent­ist in the 1970s in which space be­comes so over­pop­u­lated that col­li­sions set off big­ger and big­ger chain re­ac­tions, mak­ing it nearly im­possible to nav­ig­ate.

“I don’t think people real­ize how much we de­pend on satel­lites,” said Paul Cer­uzzi, a re­search­er at the Na­tion­al Air and Space Mu­seum. “Our lives really would come to a halt if these satel­lites stopped work­ing.” For­tu­nately, he ad­ded, “the odds of more than one col­li­sion hap­pen­ing in­de­pend­ently is pretty re­mote at the mo­ment.”

Thanks to trash-track­ers like the Air Force and NASA, we’ve been able to mostly avoid whizz­ing space junk so far. “[Debris is] not threat­en­ing to the hu­man ex­plor­a­tion of space — yet,” Cer­uzzi said. But avoid­ing it hasn’t come without dif­fi­culty. The In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion has had to take evas­ive man­euvers 16 times in its 15 years in or­bit. And it’s only go­ing to get trick­i­er.

Though space-cap­able coun­tries have got­ten more re­spons­ible about dis­pos­ing of their trash, 10 per­cent of rock­et up­per stages and 40 per­cent of satel­lites still get left in or­bit after they’ve out­lived their use­ful­ness. “There’s already enough out there to keep debris mul­tiply­ing on its own ac­cord,” said Greg Al­len, an ana­lyst for aerospace con­sult­ing group Avas­cent. “But there’s not enough out there to keep space from be­ing us­able.”

That could change if we don’t stop dis­pos­ing of met­al in the sky — or if a couple of lar­ger ob­jects col­lide, cre­at­ing a debris field that could im­pact even more ob­jects. And while the trash pile gradu­ally grows, we don’t have a plan to start un­clut­ter­ing the sky.

“There’s really no get­ting rid of the debris that’s already up there,” Al­len said, cit­ing the pro­hib­it­ive cost of launch­ing mis­sions to get rid of each ob­ject. “The way to think of space is not in dis­tance…. Those 250 miles are in real­ity over $100 mil­lion away…. There’s no com­ing down. That stuff’s there.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been at­tempts to bring it down. Ja­pan is about to test a 700-meter mag­net­ic net de­signed to haul in some debris, but many are skep­tic­al about its abil­ity. It’s not pro­pel­lant-powered, so it moves very slowly. Its mag­nets won’t work on the many satel­lites made of non­fer­rous metals. There’s also con­cern that the fast-mov­ing ob­jects could snap the net’s teth­er, gen­er­at­ing even more debris.

Oth­ers have pro­posed us­ing ground-based lasers to re­dir­ect some ob­jects. “People have ideas about how to do garbage col­lec­tion up in space, but noth­ing has really emerged yet as a prac­tic­al thing to do,” Cer­uzzi said.

Any plan to get rid of space debris, Al­len said, would have to fo­cus on the big ob­jects — satel­lites and rock­et stages — that could serve as debris-field mul­ti­pli­ers if they were to col­lide with an­oth­er ob­ject. But there are already 1,350 such ob­jects in geo­sta­tion­ary or­bit alone, with many more in low-Earth or­bit. And only 30 per­cent of them still re­spond to ground-based con­trol. Giv­en the sheer volume of the ob­jects we’d need to bring down — and the fact that each mis­sion would cost hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars — well, it adds up fast.

“It’s very ex­pens­ive to get pay­loads in­to space,” Cer­uzzi said. “Who would pay? … One na­tion would have to take the ini­ti­at­ive to pay.” It’s not likely to be the U.S., where con­gres­sion­al budget cuts have already cut NASA’s cash flow.

Debris re­triev­al would also raise all sorts of tricky in­ter­na­tion­al ques­tions. Who’s re­spons­ible for what’s already up there? What about all the ob­jects left by the now-de­funct So­viet Uni­on? Can lit­ter­ers be made to pay for oth­er coun­tries’ cleanup? Those head­ache-in­du­cing prob­lems aren’t likely to be re­solved in the near fu­ture.

So if we can’t get rid of this debris any­time soon, we must be re­doub­ling our ef­forts to track it, right? Wrong again. Thanks to se­quest­ra­tion, last sum­mer the Air Force had to cut its “Space Fence” pro­gram, re­spons­ible for about 40 per­cent of track­ing on its Space Sur­veil­lance Net­work. Though there have been no col­li­sions since the cut, “we’ve been lucky,” Al­len said.

For now, sci­ent­ists are resigned to do­ing the little they can to keep space safe. That means track­ing debris as much as pos­sible and en­cour­aging space­far­ing coun­tries to be re­spons­ible. Low-or­bit satel­lites need to be guided in­to reentry — prefer­ably over the ocean — at the end of their life span. Geo­sta­tion­ary satel­lites in high­er or­bit need to be fit­ted with thrusters to boost them up out of the way when they’ve out­lived their use­ful­ness.

“Good be­ha­vi­or … is get­ting bet­ter over time,” Al­len said. “It’s sur­pris­ingly not as good as you might think.” Still, there’s at least a little op­tim­ism that the im­min­ent danger will cause coun­tries to change their ways. “Every na­tion that at­tains the cap­ab­il­ity of put­ting stuff in­to space re­cog­nizes the re­spons­ib­il­ity,” Cer­uzzi said.


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