This is a guest article by Anna Sekścińska, a high school biology and chemistry student from Gdansk, Poland.
Satellites, residues of collisions, pieces of space rockets –almost 170 million space objects, that weigh more than 180 tonnes, are orbiting above our heads. Some of them fell down, but most is just creating a space landfill. Space debris is not the public’s favourite topic, though it can impend over space vehicles and also everything on Earth. Over the years, “space collection” has grown a lot and has become a serious problem. What exactly can we find among dumping site above our heads, how institutions and people tried to deal with it, what caused this problem, and how serious is it?
In accordance with the definition, space debris is everything created by humans, remaining in orbit around the Earth, and not performing the tasks planned for them anymore. Not only classical “space objects”, but also lost tools and other things lost by International Space Station, containers, and almost a tonne of uranium. Not everybody knows that almost 99% of these objects is smaller than a centimetre and only 0.017% is bigger than ten centimetres. The space debris problem started approximately in the 1980’s, but the first debris ever created is Vanguard 1, the second American satellite, orbiting Earth since 1958, mostly as a piece of debris. It was deactivated in 1964, but nobody took it down. Twenty years later, mostly because of technology development and some human’s activities on the orbit, numbers were two times bigger, to finally grow to today’s situation.
History of dealing with debris also began in the 60’s, when the United States and the Soviet Union started testing ASATs (anti-satellite weapons). Unfortunately ASATs didn’t solve the problem; they just made it more fragmented. By the 1990’s ASATs produced at least 1,190,000 small objects. Problem was discussed many times, but it is still far from solution. However, one of the interesting ways to deal with space debris is this from the middle 1990’s, when satellites started being miniaturised. Small satellites were cheaper, finer, and created lesser mess than its precursors. That did not really solve a problem of increasing landfill, or debris that actually existed, but it helped to reduce its production. Unfortunately, that did not work and the whole project finally failed in 2014.
So, why exactly space debris is dangerous, you may ask. Well, there are couple of reasons for that. First of all, space objects can get into the atmosphere and fall down on our heads. Falling pieces are usually very small and burn before they reach the ground. However, there were some dangerous situations that involved falling debris. For example, a piece of rocket propeller from a satellite launch fell and exploded in China last year. Secondly, though it is not certain, small objects flying around probably cause satellite anomalies, which affects all of us and can cause damage to every kind of signals. Not to mention that pieces of debris can destroy working satellites or collide in space. In 1996, a fully operational French satellite, called CERSEI, was broken by a piece of debris. This kind of situations are a vicious circle- broken objects become new, smaller pieces of debris, which doesn’t make them less dangerous. “The point which is of importance is that even a very small debris, because of the speed, at which it travels, if it hits another body, or working satellite, would make it exploding, creating a cloud of debris. So even small debris is of importance,” says Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA’s Clean Space Office.
These days many space agencies try to solve the problem of debris. ESA’s engineers are monitoring situation on the orbit and warning European authorities. In April 2018 the RemoveDebris satellite was launched aboard SpaceX Dragon and became the agency’s probably one and a half year mission. There is also Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee; presenting itself as “… an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space” It involves thirteen space agencies, including NASA, ESA and ISRO. IADC includes four specialized working groups focused on measurement, protection, data base, and mitigation of debris.
Subject of space debris wasn’t the most popular one over the public. Lately, people started noticing it and talking it over. This increasing attention may be caused by more and more incidents including space debris, new possible solutions to the problem or space companies’ policies. It is definitely a good thing because mess on the ground is not the only one that people cause. We need to remember that problem is still growing and right now there is no perfect solution, though there are people working on the matter.
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