NASA says space junk is one of the “great challenges” of our time. Here’s why


Photo: Getty Images / Max Dannenbaum

As the United States looks to a 5-year base for satellites in low Earth orbit, NASA has announced that it will fund three studies to understand the growing problem of space junk and what policies might mitigate it.

With the growing number of satellites in LEO, space junk is becoming a real threat to spacecraft, space access and the International Space Station, as well as the economy being built in LEO by the likes of SpaceX, Amazonand traditional air defense players including Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Thales, Lockheed Martin and Airbus.

As NASA notes, space junk is mostly made up of mission-related debris and dispersers, non-functional spacecraft, and abandoned rocket stages — all of which are man-made. NASA says it takes the risk of orbital debris very seriously.

“Orbital debris is one of the great challenges of our time,” Bhavya Lal saidassociate director of the Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy at NASA Headquarters.

NASA-funded research aims to understand the dynamics of the tropical environment and explore policies to reduce debris formation and mitigate the impact of existing debris.

“Maintaining our ability to use space is critical to our economy, national security, and our nation’s science and technology enterprise. These awards will fund research to help us understand the dynamics of the tropical environment and show how we can develop policies to reduce debris,” Lal said.

Last week, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Suggestion New rules to cut the number of years LEO satellite operators have to dispose of their satellites after a mission is completed from 25 to five years later. The proposal is being put to a vote by the chairs of the Federal Communications Commission.

One of the research proposals to receive funding from NASA goes to the innovator of the University of Texas’ ASTRIAgraphCrowdsourcing Space Traffic Control System (pictured below) tracks active satellites (yellow dots), inactive satellites (blue dots), missile objects (purple dots), and debris and unclassified materials (pink).

ASTRIAgraph shows a very crowded band in near-Earth orbit, which is set to become even more crowded in the future. SpaceX plans its Starlink fleet of more than 2,000 satellites today to expand to 42,000. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Jeff Bezos’ plan to work on Project Kuiper 3,236 satellites of its future competitor, SpaceX Starlink. China hopes so Send more than 7800 satellitesAccording to the files of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) of the United Nations.

The radio frequency spectrum used by satellite operators is managed by the International Telecommunication Union, but there is no global regulator that controls the number of satellites that reach space.

The Pentagon’s Space Monitoring Network (SSN) sensors track 27,000 pieces of space junk, both man-made and meteorites, if they are two inches (five centimeters) in diameter in low Earth orbit and about one yard (one meter) in geosynchronous orbit.

SSN doesn’t track the much larger number of tiny bits of junk in near-Earth orbit, which are still large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions, According to NASA.

NASA says there are 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting Earth at speeds of up to 17,500 mph (28,163 km/h).

Anti-satellite or anti-satellite tests add to the debris problem. China in 2007 controversially used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite for the ASAT test, creating more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and many other pieces of small, untracked space debris.

In November 2021, Russia conducted an ASAT “direct ascent” test that produced at least 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris, According to the US Space Command.

NASA says a panel of experts has evaluated and selected the three proposals:

  • “Adaptive Space Management and Decision Support Using Source Sink Evolutionary Ecological Models,” presented by Richard Linares and Danielle Wood of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Moriba Jah of the University of Texas-Austin.
  • “An Integrated Assessment Model for Satellite Constellations and Orbital Debris,” provided by Achilles Rao of Middlebury College, Daniel Caven of the University of Colorado Boulder and Brian Wieden of the Safe World Foundation
  • “Communications and Space Debris: Connecting to Public Knowledge and Identities,” presented by Patrice Cole, Sergio Alvarez, and Philip Metzger of the University of Central Florida

Yellow dots indicate active satellites. Blue dots indicate inactive satellites.

University of Texas

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