Getting junk out of Earth’s orbit needs more urgency

European, international space program experts say space debris increasingly threatens vital orbital areas

ESA junk grabber
The international space community needs to get a whole lot more serious about cleaning up the debris in orbit - especially in low Earth orbit where critical satellites operate and future space missions will maneuver.

At the current density of debris, there will be an in-orbit collision about every five years, according to research presented at the 6th European Conference on Space Debris taking place in Darmstadt, Germany this week.   The research went on to say that about 10 to 15 large objects or about seven tons of debris need to be removed from space a year to reduce the risk of collisions and damage to other spacecraft.

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"While measures against further debris creation and actively deorbiting defunct satellites are technically demanding and potentially costly, there is no alternative to protect space as a valuable resource for our critical satellite infrastructure," said Heiner Klinkrad, Head of European Space Agency's Space Debris Office in a statement. The concern too is that there could be more collisions with larger objects that could create even more fragments.  

Future space missions must be sustainable, including safe disposal when they are completed. The current levels mean that we must soon begin removing debris from orbit, with research and development urgently needed for pilot 'cleaning' missions. The removal of space debris is an environmental problem of global dimensions that must be assessed in an international context, including the United Nations, according to the ESA.

The Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space meeting in February included the topic of space debris, though it was mostly an update on international space debris research and activities during 2012.

[MORE: NASA identifies Top Ten space junk missions]

In February the European Commission laid out plans to better coordinate the surveillance and tracking of space debris in order to protect satellites.  Currently, European satellite operators almost completely depend on United States space surveillance and tracking information. But the new proposals would bring together E.U. member states' existing capacities, such as ground-based telescopes, radars and surveillance and tracking data centers, to help the bloc become more self-sufficient.

Space debris consists of human-made objects in Earth's orbit that no longer have a useful purpose, such as pieces of launched spacecraft. It is estimated that up to 600,000 objects larger than 1 centimeter and at least 16,000 larger than 10 cm orbit Earth. An object larger than 1 cm hitting a satellite would damage or destroy sub-systems or instruments on board and a collision with an object larger than 10 cm would destroy the satellite, according to Commission figures. The number of objects larger than 1 cm is expected to reach around 1 million in 2020.

NASA's Orbital Debris Office recently reported that a small Russian geodetic satellite was knocked slightly from its orbit in January 2013 and shed a piece of debris after apparently being struck by a very small meteoroid or orbital debris. Known as BLITS (Ball Lens In The Space), the satellite was circling the Earth at an  altitude of 832 km with an inclination of 98.6 degrees at the time of the event.  NASA said the BLITS is a completely inert object consisting of a glass sphere encased in another glass sphere with a total mass of 7.53 kg and a full diameter of 17 cm  and is used as a target for laser ranging stations to obtain very precise altitude measurements. The satellite was reported to be spinning at a rate of 5.6 seconds prior to the suspected collision and at a rate of only 2.1 seconds afterwards.

NASA noted collisions between satellites and very small debris are common, but normally go unnoticed and do not produce new trackable debris. In 2002, Cosmos 539 was apparently struck by a small object and also released a piece of debris.  That same year the JASON-1 spacecraft was struck by a small particle, producing two new debris pieces.  The nature of the fragment from BLITS is still under examination, NASA said.

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