Space junk reaches ‘tipping point’

Diagram showing space junk in Earth orbit

Earth is circled by millions of pieces of space junk, or orbital debris, many of which pose a serious risk to satellites and astronauts. Is it time to do something about it?

ALTHOUGH NASA’S PROGRAMMES to track meteoroids and orbital debris have responsibly used their resources, the agency’s has not kept pace with increasing hazards posed by abandoned equipment, spent rocket bodies, and other debris orbiting the Earth, says a new report by the US National Research Council.

NASA should develop a formal strategic plan to better allocate resources devoted to the management of orbital debris. In addition, removal of debris from the space environment or other actions to mitigate risks may be necessary.

Some scenarios generated by NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris models show that debris has reached a “tipping point,” with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures, the report notes.

In addition, collisions with debris have disabled and even destroyed satellites in the past; a recent near-miss of the International Space Station underscores the value in monitoring and tracking orbital debris as precisely as possible.

Challenges for NASA

“The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts,” said Donald Kessler, chair of the committee that wrote the report and retired head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Programme Office.

“NASA needs to determine the best path forward for tackling the multifaceted problems caused by meteoroids and orbital debris that put human and robotic space operations at risk.

Space junk impact on space shuttle Endeavour

A small piece of space junk punched a hole through the inside of one of space shuttle Endeavour's payload bay doors, where heat radiators were situated.

The strategic plan NASA develops should provide a basis for prioritising efforts and allocating funds to the agency’s numerous meteoroid and orbital debris programmes, the report says.

Currently, the programmes do not have a single management and budget structure that can efficiently coordinate all of these activities. The programmes are also vulnerable to changes in personnel, as nearly all of them are staffed by just one person.

A global problem

The strategic plan, which should consider short- and long-term objectives, a schedule of benchmark achievements, and priorities among them, also should include potential research needs and management issues.

Removal of orbital debris introduces another set of complexities, the report adds, because only about 30 percent of the objects can be attributed to the United States.

“The Cold War is over, but the acute sensitivity regarding satellite technology remains,” explained committee vice chair George Gleghorn, former vice president and chief engineer for the TRW Space and Technology Group.

Although NASA has identified the need for removing debris, the agency and U.S. government as a whole have not fully examined the economic, technological, political, and legal considerations, the report says.

For example, according to international legal principle, no nation may salvage or otherwise collect other nations’ space objects.

Therefore, the report recommends, NASA should engage the U.S. Department of State in the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal.

The study was sponsored by NASA.

Adapted from information issued by the US National Academy of Sciences. Images courtesy NASA.

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  1. debbie says:

    They will have to fill out paperwork to get permission to move other peoples junk.