May 30, 2024

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There is no more room for space debris

There is no more room for space debris

Living and working in space is not without risks. The only thing protecting you from the vacuum of space is a wall made of just a few millimeters of aluminum and Kevlar.

So you are just a few millimeters away from an airless environment full of dangerous radiation, and where the temperature varies greatly: a hundred degrees Celsius in the sun and minus a hundred degrees in the shade. And then you hear that you may be on a collision course with a piece of an old Russian satellite.

I encountered this when I was in space. It was March 24, 2012, just before 6 a.m. My fellow astronauts and I closed all the gates on the International Space Station. Then we went to the Soyuz capsule to wait out the danger. Or immediately return to Earth in the event of a collision.

Thousands of satellites included

Fortunately for us it ended well. The piece of space debris flew close to the International Space Station and we were able to get back to work. But the risk of collision was real. If we are not careful, this risk will increase in the future.

Fifteen years ago, there were about a thousand active satellites in space. This year there are more than 7,000. By 2040, this number is expected to rise to tens of thousands. This is partly due to Internet projects such as SpaceX's Starlink, Amazon's Kuiper, and OneWeb. Tens of thousands of satellites will be sent into space to enable communications everywhere on Earth.

Satellites can malfunction or go off course. They could collide with old rocket stages or with each other. Sometimes they are shot intentionally. The United States, India, China and Russia have done this to show that they have successful anti-satellite weapons.

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Radars track space debris

Results? Bits and pieces fly uncontrollably through space. According to the European Space Agency, about 130 million pieces of space debris larger than one millimeter are floating in orbit around Earth. Everything larger than ten centimeters is constantly monitored by radar systems.

“Space debris collides and breaks into thousands of pieces.”

I'm concerned about a cascading effect called Kessler syndrome. Space debris collides and breaks into thousands of pieces. All those small molecules in turn collide with each other. Until some point, there are so many small pieces of space debris that people and satellites cannot get into space safely.

Fortunately, space agencies are aware of the space debris problem. Since this year, the European Space Agency has been working on a space debris-free approach, with the aim of preventing new space debris and removing old debris. NASA and Japan's JAXA have similar initiatives.

Satellite burning

Creating smaller amounts of new space debris is relatively easy. For example, you could agree that you can only launch satellites if you can also return them to Earth. This can be done safely: you can slow it down with a small engine, and because of the heat of friction during reentry, this satellite completely burns up in the atmosphere.

Removing existing space debris is more difficult. Space missions are being developed to remove debris using nets or robotic arms. It may also be possible to launch space debris from Earth using lasers. Lasers slow the debris down a bit, after which it falls back to Earth and burns up in the atmosphere.

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I hope we can clean the room together. So we can continue to use satellites for navigation, communications, climate research and weather forecasting. So that astronauts on the space station do not have to hide from space debris. Because even if you assume that such a procedure will end well, it is certainly not without risks.

Do you have tips for Kuipers and the universe or a question about the universe, space travel or sustainability? Send an email to [email protected]. André Kuipers answers the most original posts in this section each month.