POLLUTION HAS SKYROCKETED: CAN SPACE BE MORE SUSTAINABLE?
Space debris has experienced a dramatic increase throughout recent years, becoming a growing threat due to the high chance of collisions with active satellites which can be destructive due to the high orbital velocity.
The terms space debris, or “space junk”, indicate any debris or man-made object orbiting the Earth. Included in this definition are broken satellites or rocket fragments that are left in space by humans, material ejected from rocket engines, and any other small particles.
Rarely do we stop to think about the enormous amount of space junk, satellites, scientific platforms, space gear, and instrumentation scattered in space, and rarely do we understand the damage they create in the immensity of the universe.
The space cortex that surrounds Earth has an orbit of its own that ends up absorbing all the space junk. This continually produces heavy space pollution, which then translates into environmental pollution when these remnants, or their toxic components, gradually plummet toward our planet.
It all began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. Since then, thousands of devices were put into orbit and were gradually abandoned, beginning to produce space junk. A wide variety of objects can be found here: from bottles, to repair and assembly materials, through remnants of damaged or failed satellites. To date, the oldest human-made space object in orbit is the Vanguard I satellite, launched in 1958 by the United States. According to E. Tufte, in his book Envisioning Information, among the list of unusual lost items, there is also a glove lost by the astronaut Edward White, a camera lost by Michael Collins, garbage bags filled by Mir cosmonauts during their 15 years spent in the Space Station, a wrench and a toothbrush.
Overall, these objects, do not represent a significant contribution compared to the number of debris in orbit, which is mostly generated by explosions. Most of the space junk is concentrated along low Earth orbits, although some are also found beyond geosynchronous orbit. The first evasive maneuver was performed in 1991 by the Space Shuttle in mission STS-48, to avoid a collision with a fragment of the Cosmos 995 satellite. Moreover, in 2007, debris from a Russian spy satellite dangerously grazed an Airbus carrying 270 passengers, on a flight between Chile and New Zealand. In 2008, a risk analysis, conducted for a Space Shuttle Atlantis mission, concluded that there was a 1 in 185 chance of catastrophic impact due to space debris.
While this may seem like an “invisible” problem for us, it is not. Fragments the size of a softball, travel at the speed of about 15 kilometers per second (15 times faster than a bullet) and this can turn out to cause greater issues. If debris were to hit a satellite at that speed, needless to say, the service provided by it would stop working, and, if the International Space Station (ISS) would be hit, the risk would be even greater and imply loss of lives. For this reason, ISS has been armed with peculiar protections to mitigate this kind of risk. Collisions are rare, but they should not be underestimated.
Thousands of pieces of satellites and other objects swarm around the earth. On average, one piece of waste re-enters Earth’s atmosphere every day. While the majority gets dispersed, a large number can land and threaten people’s lives and properties: one object is said to have a 30 percent chance of hitting Earth.
NASA and the Department of Defense cooperate and share responsibilities for cataloging and tracking the orbital process of space debris. Existing waste is categorized and tracked to avoid any issues during launches. To date, about 27,000 officially cataloged objects are still in orbit and most of them are 10 cm and larger.
How to eliminate space junk?
The UN has proposed methods of removing large objects from space, which include harpoons, magnets, and lasers to heat objects and drop them out of orbit (although these methods would only work for larger objects).
Startups eliminating space waste
Switzerland-based startup ClearSpace has the mission to create technologies able to get rid of unused satellites in space. Moreover, they aim to provide facilities on-orbit that can fix satellites instead of tossing them. In 2020, the Swiss startup has signed a $104 Mln contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to deorbit debris (a Payload Adapter left behind from a launch in 2013) from a Vega rocket. The mission, called “ClearSpace-1”, will occur in 2025 and will consist in capturing the Adapter with a robot with four tentacles and forcing it to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere where both the robot and the adapter will be burned off. This space mission could be the first one to remove debris from orbit, which could, perhaps, lead to a space trash removal business in the near future.
OrbitGuardians is a startup based in the United States which brings together computer vision, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT) for space debris removal in a cost-effective way.
Astroscale — On-Orbit Servicing
The Japanese startup Astroscale works with national space agencies, international institutions, non-profits, insurance companies, and satellites to contribute to the responsible use of space. In collaboration with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), it is working on removing a Japanese rocket body.
The need for collaboration
The global space debris removal market size was $803 Mln as of 2020 with an estimated growth by 2028 (CAGR of 7.8%). Nevertheless, such space waste issue is so massive that cannot be solved by companies alone and, thus, partnerships and collaboration between private and public sectors are multiplying. Governments, in particular, are interested in being involved to mitigate risks by setting up precise regulations and policies related to space. We are increasingly shifting towards democratization and a renaissance of the space economy, as companies like Space X and Blue Origin have been proving nowadays, as well as with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2021, made possible thanks to the cooperation of NASA, ESA, and Arianespace.
Large companies and governments, however, both call for the aid of SpaceTech startups to contribute to making significant signs of progress in the aerospace industry with their innovative approaches and technologies.
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