U.S. sets its sights on tackling 'space junk'
Pictured is a fiery sunset taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on Oct. 27, 2016. (NASA)
Rachel Kelly, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, June 22, 2018 2:58PM EDT
The U.S. government is looking into ways to manage debris from satellite collisions as interest in commercial space development grows.
According to NASA, space debris is the primary threat to orbiting satellites and the technologies that rely on them. As the number of satellites in orbit increases, so does the potential for collisions a rising amount of debris in orbit. If the number of satellites in lower-Earth orbit reaches a critical mass, it could trigger what NASA calls “collisional cascading.” In this scenario, satellites would be orbiting so close together that any small collision could cause a chain reaction, affecting any technologies that rely on satellites, from weather forecasting to navigation to telecommunication. Satellites are already at risk with the current amount of debris in orbit.
“Every five to nine years, we are going to have a collision in low Earth orbit,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told a joint House panel on Friday.
A single collision can produce thousands of pieces of debris. The 2009 Kosmos-Iridium collision between two communication satellites generated 2,000 pieces of traceable debris, as well as potentially hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments. NASA has officially catalogued approximately 15,000 pieces of debris, but according to Bridenstine, an estimated 620,000 pieces probably exist.
“The biggest risk to missions in low Earth orbit are from objects that are too small to even track,” said Bridenstine.
On Friday, Bridenstine, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Strategic Commander Gen. John Hyten testified before a joint House panel about “space situational awareness”- the evaluation of dangers to satellites and spacecraft posed by junk orbiting the planet. They were speaking about the recently signed Space Policy Directive-3, which outlined some guidelines and initiatives for dealing with space debris and space traffic management. A priority of the directive is to create “a safe and secure environment as commercial and civil space traffic increases,” according to the White House.
“We will have a regime that provides safety and security for [commercial] investments, and provides it without fee,” Bridenstine said.
Companies already planning low Earth orbit projects include Boeing, which is considering launching up to 2,956 communications satellites in a broadband ‘constellation.’ Elon Musk’s SpaceX is rumoured to be considering a similar project with up to 12,000 satellites.
Space agencies are still perfecting ways to clean up space debris. On Wednesday, the International Space Station launched the RemoveDebris spacecraft, the first unmanned craft designed to actively collect debris. Bridenstine says he is interested to see what the private sector can contribute to this field.
“There are certain technologies that are being developed,” Bridenstine said.