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
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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