There's a lot of rubbish out in space and it's dangerous, said a panel at the Deep Tech Stage of Web Summit this week. It featured Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety at the European Space Agency (ESA), Peter Martinez, Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation and Nobu Okada, Founder and CEO of Astroscale - an incredibly exciting organisation that is developing the technology to help us clean up the mess humankind is leaving in our space trail.
Bits of spacecraft, old rockets, disused satellites, solar panels and debris smaller than a fingernail but as powerful as a speeding bullet are hurtling around in our orbit at 17,500mph, the panel said. Other voices beyond the panel say we need to talk about space sustainability lest it prevent us from further space exploration, and the chance to build life away from Earth should we not be able to stave off impending climate change. Our space junk would leave us marooned here forever.
Humans have been sending objects into orbit around Earth for 60 years. And as early as 1978, scientists have been worried about what we've left up there. Some of the objects are large. The equivalent of driving several cars onto a speeding motorway and leaving them there in the fast lane while other high speed vehicles rush past - totally irresponsible and dangerous. The more of them that are left there, the more dangerous and impossible to navigate.
It gets even worse. This space junk when it collides shatters into many thousands of pieces, each piece then set off at 17,500mph in space. These are dangerous speeding missiles that can cut through metal, slicing up critical infrastructure that's also in the Earth's orbit which is in active and highly important use. For example, 40% of the apps on our phones use satellite and navigation systems that are in orbit and humankind will only be increasingly more reliant on this space infrastructure. But that space is getting crowded and dangerous.
It's not a theoretical concern. In 2009 a defunct Russian Satellite destroyed an American commercial one. The impact added over 2,000 new pieces of space litter in its wake, each one capable of slicing a solar array or critical communications infrastructure needed by the Earth and its people.
The US Defense Department is tracking over 22,000 objects the size of a softball or larger. Two collisions alone - when the Russian satellite hit the US one and when the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old weather spacecraft - increased the number of items by one-third. According to the ESA in figures released in January 2019 there are 130 million objects smaller than 1cm orbiting Earth, too small to be tracked, 900,000 objects from 1cm to 10cm and 34,000 objects larger than 10cm. We don’t see these satellites or the millions of pieces of debris in orbit, but they are there, presenting a growing hazardous environment for existing and future space missions.
So what can we do about Space Debris?
Firstly, there's no real regulation of what's being sent out to space and so more responsible behaviour needs to be encouraged. Satellites should be deorbited carefully and space clean-up needs to be a priority. The worry is if the big objects aren't cleared up now, they break up into much smaller pieces and that's an infinitely more challenging scenario.
Astroscale is a company that's doing some very exciting work in this area, and on a pioneering mission to remove space debris. It's proposing two solutions:
- End-of-life services – Don't add any more debris to Earth's orbital environment
- Active Debris Removal - Bring down large debris that is currently in orbit
In addition to providing a technical solution, Astroscale is helping to define the business case for this service and is working with national space agencies, international institutions, non-profit organisations, insurance companies and satellite operators to develop norms, regulations and incentives that contribute to the responsible use of space.
It recently released a video demonstrating its End of life Service, ELSA-d, showing how space objects can be rendevoused, captured and de orbited. And it's well worth a watch.
It's a fascinating technology in action. And a company tackling a threat which is literally over our heads.
Nobu Okada, the Founder and CEO of Astroscale, left me feeling optimistic about the future. He is quietly confident that the clear up operation can be done with the right technology and international cooperation. Its team of Space Sweepers, from different fields; engineers, researchers, physicists from both universities and industry, sweeping space of hazardous debris are now focused on this mission, making Earth's orbit a safer place for the long-term usage for space related activities.
I picture them sweeping space diligently for humankind in the years to come.