December started moving on the International Space Station. In the most literal sense of the expression. Earlier this month Dmitry Rogozim, head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, announced that the ISS had to carry out a maneuver not programmed to descend 310 meters for three minutes. The reason: dodge trash, specifically the remains of an old American launch vehicle that was put into orbit decades ago, in 1994.
This is not the ISS ‘first collision with a space debris. Most likely it won’t be the last either. Since 1999 the ISS has carried out more than twenty maneuvers for a similar reason: dodge debris. A report released by NASA in January I calculated that right now there are at least 26,000 pieces of garbage orbiting the Earth that are at least the size of a baseball. If the range is widened and those that look more like a marble are taken into account, their number shoots up to exceed 500,000. When a grain of salt is taken as a reference, the figures are already stratospheric: there would be more than a hundred million pieces.
Many are small, yes, tiny, it would take a good magnifying glass to appreciate them well; but they are big enough, NASA alerts, how to pierce a spacesuit.
A problem that demands attention
The problem is not old, nor the inheritance of past times with less sensitivity about the serious dangers that space debris can represent. Just a month ago, in mid-November, the US charged Russia for blast a former Soviet satellite with missiles, a “dangerous and irresponsible” operation – in the words of the US authorities – that generated a trail of thousands of debris that has been orbiting the Earth since then.
Like the waste that floats from the distant 90’s, the risk they pose to space traffic is serious. Very serious. As a warning without hot cloths the experts of the European Space Agency (AESA): “A particle of a centimeter at 28,800 kilometers per hour (km / h) is a projectile capable of knocking out a satellite worth one hundred million euros.”
So tricky is the space debris challenge that major international authorities have paid increasing attention to it for some time. On the table there are several factors that encourage this to be so. The main one, that the volume of satellites in orbit is growing, and is also growing at an accelerated rate and with no signs of slowing down. Maybe the best example is Spacex and its constellation Starlink, that It already has hundreds of satellites and aims to put about 42,000 into orbit.
Not all end up swarming eternally through space. A good number of fragments are incinerated when falling into the atmosphere. This is not always the case, however. And the truth is that perhaps in the future it will happen even less frequently. As the newspaper collected in May The New York Times, the Earth’s atmosphere, our great ally in getting rid of this kind of debris, could lose part of its effectiveness due to the gradual degradation of the atmosphere itself.
A study presented last spring, within the framework of the European Confederation on Space Junk —and which was echoed by the New York newspaper-, alerts that the changes that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions cause in the atmosphere could have an unexpected consequence: an increase in the garbage that swarms over our heads. How? The atmosphere carries the fragments, which makes it easier for them to end up incinerating in the troposphere. In fact, less than 482 kilometers above the Earth, most objects end up decomposing naturally and burn over the years. This beneficial effect could, however, be reduced as the density of the upper atmosphere itself does.
When NASA dumped 2.9 tons of garbage into space in March, old nickel-hydrogen batteries from the International Space Station, it was counting on precisely that beatific effect of the atmosphere. The US agency calculated in fact, after two or four years orbiting the Earth, the material would end up burning “harmlessly in the atmosphere”.
For now, there are already studies that predict a possible future in which the Earth has rings similar to those of Saturn. Yes indeed, made with a peculiar material: space junk.
As the waste problem becomes more important and, above all, threatens to give new headaches in the not-so-distant futureAgencies such as NASA or ESA have been working to find solutions. The US Space Surveillance Network, for example, is responsible for detecting and locating thousands of objects in orbit. Along the same lines and within the framework of the ADRIOS project (Active Debris Removal / In-Orbit Servicing), ESA develops Clear-Space-1, a mission that – if all goes according to plan – will take off in 2025 and has been designed precisely for the purpose of cleaning up space junk; and NASA itself has an office focused on material, NASA Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO).
In the race to eliminate space debris, however, government agents are not the only protagonists. Private companies have also shown their interest in a problem that promises to get worse over time and for which, in all likelihood, both NASA and ESA will offer new contracts in the future. The business promises lucrative. For the Clear-Space-1 mission, the European agency has used, for example, a commercial consortium led by the Swiss startup ClearSpace. A year ago it announced that it would allocate an investment of around 86 million euros to the project. The goal you have set to demonstrate your capabilities will be intercept a fragment of more than one hundred kilos which was detached in 2013 from the Vega rocket.
The Swiss company is not the only one in any case that has focused its attention on the huge space dump that feeds on the debris and debris of space missions. Just a few weeks ago Gizmodo published that Privateer, the new space startup of Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Appel, announced his plans to launch satellites in order to map and study space debris. “I think we will launch hundreds. Not at the same time, we will build them slowly, “he acknowledged to Space.com. Wozniak is not alone in his business adventure. By his side, as a partner, he has Alex Fielding, a member of the first iMac team.
Another of the proper names, as collected by Business Insider, is Astrocale, founded eight years ago and based in Tokyo. “Our orbital highways are already contaminated with more than 36,600 pieces of debris over four inches in diameter and hundreds of millions smaller. With the launch of up to tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years, these debris endanger a flourishing ecosystem in space. That’s why we exist: to develop innovative technologies, promote business cases, and inform international policies that reduce orbital debris and support long-term sustainable use of space ”, point the signature.
On its official website, Astroscale advertises active debris removal services and others designed to extend the life of the satellites Or, directly, prepare them before they are launched so that their removal – once their useful life ends – is much easier. Proof of its pull is that at the end of November closed an additional funding round of USD 109 million. Although the group of new investors was led by a Japanese company, Astroscale attracted capital from international companies, such as Seraphim Space Investment Trust pcl. After the last round, the total amount raised rises to 300 million dollars.
Last March the company successfully launched its ELSA-d mission, a milestone for the firm in the race for the “docking and removal of space debris.” “While leading the way to demonstrate our capabilities, ELSA-d will also drive regulatory developments and promote the business case for active and end-of-life debris removal services,” said Nobu Okada, founder and CEO of Astrocale. Months later, in September, the company reported that it had tried with equal success its magnetic capture system.
Airbus has also shown interest in the removal of debris orbiting the Earth. About three years ago, in February 2019, the University of Surrey announced that the RemoveDEBRIS satellite had successfully used a harpoon system to capture fragments of space debris. The device, a 1.5-meter arm deployed from the main spacecraft, had been designed by Airbus Stevenage. The harpoon was fired at 20 meters per second to penetrate the object and demonstrate its ability to “hunt” debris in space.
The 2019 test marked the third success of the RemoveDEBRIS project, which had already successfully tested other options for space junk, including a network, its next-generation LiDAR, and a navigation system with cameras to identify debris.
Other firms focus on monitoring the fragments. On his page, ExoAnalytic Solutions It details how it implemented eight years ago “the first commercial telescope network capable of delivering real-time astrometric and photometric measurement data for satellites and debris in Earth orbit at high altitude.” Their service with telescopes is especially useful for locating objects in high orbits, in which neither lasers nor radars are of great help. Thanks to them the Californian firm –precisa The Economist– he is able to track trash 170,000 kilometers.
Incluso Elon Musk has slipped that SpaceX’s Starship could be harnessed for the cause. How? Collecting and “shredding” debris. In a similar line, the president of the company, Gwynne Shotwell, had already pointed out, who reflected on the ability of the Starship to collect scrap in orbit and store it on its cargo platform. “It will not be easy, but I think it offers the possibility,” noted the manager during an interview with Time in fall 2020.
The mission is clear: clean the uncontrolled landfill that little by little takes shape over our heads – in the worst case scenario, as collected The New York Times, their numbers will grow about 50 times between now and 2100 — and, incidentally, stick your head in a business that promises to flourish.