Orbital debris as a problem

We asked our Zintro experts to tell us if orbital debris is a real problem and how it might impact the future of space exploration.

Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (US), believes that orbital debris is close to becoming a real problem for all space activities, inclusive of space travel. “The smallest of particles, due to their speed, can result in disastrous damage. The infamous cascade effect is about to kick in, meaning that even without any further launch, orbital debris will multiply. Its impact on the future of space travel will lie in the increased costs for awareness, mitigation and defensive measures against possible impact, and, legally speaking, translate into greater likelihoods of liability claims,” he says. “One juridical way of approaching the problem is to establish legally binding standards before anyone is allowed to enter outer space and another to establish a global warning and cleaning up system. But while the technology is there, the costs seem to outsize the benefits, at least until a few more accidents start to hit home. It is perhaps better and cheaper in the end to prevent then to procure.”

Duncan Lunan, an expert in astronomy and space education and science writer, refers to the episode of a disastrously successful Chinese test of an Anti-Satellite Weapon in January 2007, which destroyed one of its own weather satellites, and added 35,000-90,000 pieces of debris to the population orbiting the Earth – all of them in near-polar orbit threatening clusters of satellites, including the Iridium mobile phone constellation. “If the new debris cloud generates a cascade effect as more and more satellites are destroyed, all space efforts may be set back for at least a generation,” says Lunan.

Lunan says that when an object breaks up explosively in orbit, fragments have a wide range of velocities (defined by speed and direction). Those that are hurled forward go into orbits with an apogee higher than the original orbit; those hurled back go to a lower perigee. “The destroyed weather satellite Feng Yun 1C was at an altitude of 537 miles, and debris that reached Low Earth Orbit cleared rapidly, so the surviving 35,000-plus pieces must be ranging upwards to at least 974 miles’ altitude, actually from 3,800 km. (2375 miles) on the high end down to about 200 km. (125 miles) at the lowest, according to Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, which is by far the worst satellite fragmentation in the history of the space age, in the past 50 years,” he says.

“Feng Yun 1C was in near-polar orbit, so over a year its debris ring broadened in longitude to envelop the Earth, and is able to hit any satellite within its altitude range, including the Hubble Space Telescope, most Earth-observation spacecraft, and such low-Earth-orbit communications constellations as Orbcomm, Iridium, and Globalstar,” says Lunan. “Most of it will fall in 25 years, but some will take a century or more, and as it comes down, all that debris will pass through LEO and pose new hazards to satellites. It can be shown mathematically that above a certain number of objects in orbit, mutual collisions will increase the numbers in a cascade effect until every satellite is destroyed and the sphere of debris enclosing the Earth prevents all further space missions until it clears. The trouble is that we don’t know how large or small that critical number is, so each new debris event is a serious cause for alarm.”

Walter H. Delashmit, PhD, an engineering consultant, says that orbital debris is a major problem. “We now have many countries and even private companies putting things into space. We have no control over these systems and they may have trouble tracking many of them. There is no easy way to destroy the debris because blowing them up leaves smaller debris particles that can impact/collide with other systems,” he says. “It does not take a very big particle at the speeds we are talking about to cause problems, but how to safely de-orbit debris is a big question.”

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