As Satellite Business Continues to Boom, So Does Space Junk Problem

Andrew Rosenblum | Freelance

With OneWeb announcing a mega-constellation of some 2,000 satellites and SpaceX  planning another 4,500 to provide Internet service to remote regions around the globe, the business of satellite-delivered data continues to boom.

But that also means that the problem of man-made space debris could worsen.   A University of Southampton researcher told that such mega-constellations, as well as the roughly 150 cubesats deployed in orbit each year, could worsen the problem of space debris if their end-of-life is not carefully managed.

Researcher Hugh Lewis was part of a team that modeled the effects on the current space environment of an additional 270 cubesats per year, along with a fleet of 1,000 satellites.  He concluded that the cubesats would likely be a bigger problem because operators were less likely to properly plan for disposal.  However, his scenario of a 1,000 satellite fleet is significantly smaller than either constellation planned by OneWeb and SpaceX.

And the amount of junk orbiting the Earth is significant.  According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, there are more than 21,000 pieces of human-made debris larger than 10 cm, more than 500,000 between 1 and 10 cm, and a jaw-dropping 100 million that are less than a cm.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network keeps a close eye on larger orbital debris, as these objects can cause significant damage to the International Space Station.  If a large piece of space debris has a projected chance of striking the I.S.S. greater than 1 out of 10,000, the station will propel itself out of harm’s way.  This type of operation occurs on average about once per year.  As the most heavily shielded spacecraft in history, the I.S.S. is able to easily withstand collisions by objects up to 1 cm in diameter.

Debris smaller than a cm sounds trivial but in fact can cause problems.  Last August, an approximately 1cm piece of debris struck a solar panel on the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel 1A, causing a brief power loss and slight alteration in trajectory.  Debris smaller than 5 cm are not trackable from the ground.

About one third of the cataloged space debris derives from the deliberate demolition of the Chinese Fengyun weather satellite in 2007, and the accidental collision of a Russian and American communications satellite in 2009, according to NASA.

Space debris could also be a business opportunity.  The Made in Space “Archinaut” robot would have debris removal as one of its many possible applications.