SCIENCE & TECH/ INTERNATIONAL
- GS-3: Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.
Space Junk Threat
Context: In March, a Chinese military satellite (Yunhai 1-02) appeared to spontaneously disintegrate in orbit, leaving a trail of debris high above the Earth.
- Recently it was understood that the satellite disintegrated due to its collision with a piece of junk leftover from a 1996 Russian rocket launch.
- It was the first major smash-up in Earth orbit since 2009.
What is Space Junk?
- It is the dead and unwanted craft left behind in the finite space of Earth orbit.
- More than 100 million pieces of space junk are now orbiting the Earth.
- Although the vast majority are the size of sand grains or smaller, at least 26,000 hunks are big enough to destroy a satellite.
What is the major concern with Space Junk?
- Due to cost-saving advances in rocket and satellite technologies, more countries and companies are preparing to launch more stuff into orbit than ever before.
- About 4,000 operational satellites are now in orbit; in the years ahead, that number could rise to more than 100,000.
- As more entities seek to access orbit for scientific and commercial purposes, the likelihood and risk of a collision is growing fast.
- Each collision would in turn produce debris that made further collisions more likely.
- The result could be a belt of space junk so dense that it would make certain low-Earth orbits unusable.
- Space junk could also affect their research operations (including the threat posed to astronauts aboard the International Space Station).
- As Earth orbit becomes an increasingly important arena for military rivalry, there’s also the risk that collisions could be misinterpreted as something other than an accident.
- Understanding the criticality of the issue, NASA set up an Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) to deal with the problem.
What was the outcome of ODPO?
- In 1995, the agency issued the world’s first set of debris-mitigation guidelines. Among other things, it proposed that satellites be designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years of mission completion.
- Other spacefaring countries and the United Nations followed with their own guidelines.
- But urgency and compliance were lacking, partly because the world had not yet experienced a destructive collision between spacecraft and debris until 2007.
- In 2007, China launched a ballistic missile at one of its old weather satellites, producing the largest cloud of space debris ever tracked.
- Later in 2009, a non-functional Russian communications orbiter collided with a functioning one operated by Iridium Satellite, producing almost 2,000 pieces of debris measuring at least 4 inches in diameter.
- Since then, the situation has only gotten more precarious
So what can be done?
- Collaboration between nations to tackle the issue of space junk, is required.
- The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, negotiated during an earlier space race with little input from China, needs to be updated.
- In particular, provisions that grant countries permanent property rights to their objects in space may complicate efforts to clean up debris.
- Next, Nasa should fund research into debris-removal technologies—such as those recently demonstrated by Astroscale, a Japanese startup, which hold promise— and consider partnerships with companies developing them.
- The US should also seek to expand the Artemis Accords, a framework for space cooperation that includes (so far) 11 other countries.
- As more nations join, debris-mitigation protocols, such as a requirement to specify which country has responsibility for end-of-mission planning, should become routine.
Nations should help to make space a place where countries and companies collaborate, not collide.
Connecting the dots: