What is Space Debris and Why It is Dangerous for Us?

So you may ask what is space debris and the danger of it. Yes, we will cover all the questions but the problem is, over time, space debris can become catastrophically large. Let’s figure out how it accumulates and why the first-ever fine for an uncleaned satellite was issued in October 2023

What is space debris?

What is Space Debris and Why It is Dangerous for Us?

Space debris is solid waste from space activities.

This includes inoperative satellites launched by mankind over 60 years of space exploration; besides, it embraces the second and third stages of the launch vehicle (usually the first one falls into the Pacific Ocean), upper stages, and fragments of satellites after explosions or collisions, e.g. fragments of the skin. Thus, space debris is born. Now, scientists have calculated that there are 128 million pieces of space debris larger than 1 mm, and 34,000 of such particles are larger than 10 cm in space.

Anything which is less than 1 millimeter in size, and is difficult for it to be counted. some scientists talk of trillions of such particles. About 3,000 satellites, which have failed by themselves, have turned into space debris. Astronomers can only track large fragments since particle speeds can reach up to 14 km/s (depending on the orbit).

At that, about 17,000 space objects of the size of 10 centimeters and more are taken into account among the 23,000 being tracked at the moment by Russia and the United States. At the same time, space debris accounts for 95% of the catalog of space objects.

Problems and threats of space debris:

What is Space Debris and Why It is Dangerous for Us?

The danger level of space debris is determined mainly by three factors:

  • how long space debris stays in orbit;
  • what is the speed of movement;
  • How difficult is it to dispose of space debris?

The main problem of the garbage crisis in space is the failure of working satellites when colliding with space debris. Particles that are less than 1 cm in size are even dangerous due to their great velocity; they will overrun the anti-meteor protection of the orbital station. The spacecraft or station is guaranteed for destruction when colliding with an object sized larger than 10 cm.

In May 2016, a space debris piece as large as a hundredth of a millimeter flew into the International Space Station (ISS) and left a 7-mm-diameter chip on the ISS. For this, the ISS has to change its orbit regularly to dodge debris. Small debris does not contain disastrous consequences, but the danger is covered with gigantic volumes, uncontrolled distribution in space, enormous speed, and absolute unpredictability of collisions.

At the moment about 99% of those potentially harmful objects are out of control for their enormous speed and small size.

What is Kessler syndrome and what does it have to do with it?

What is Space Debris and Why It is Dangerous for Us?

This fact brings one to the belief that sooner or later, we will stop being able to place additional satellites into the orbits, as the debris will have fully occupied those spaces. This will occur due to a cascading effect, which scientists name Kessler syndrome:

The volume of space debris is quickly growing, and it produces other debris.

The nature is such that orbits get occupied like a nuclear chain reaction. Man cannot, therefore, launch aircraft either because of uncontrolled crashes.

The probability of collisions in any orbit is basically in proportion to the square of the number of space objects. But the cascade is believed to have set in some regions of the orbit and for some classes of space garbage, especially at altitudes of 900-1000 km and 1500 km.

At this altitude, on February 10, 2009, the American Iridium-33 collided with the Russian Kosmos-2251. It was only after the disaster that the aircraft disintegrated into 600 fragments larger than 5 cm, and several thousand smaller fragments.

Nowadays, working tracking systems are rare due to such cases of serviceable spacecraft collision with space junk in orbit. There is another difficulty that is, explosions of old satellites with remaining fuel and used batteries. Under the corresponding kinds of influence, they can damage operating satellites more than normal collisions.

Space debris disposal:

What is Space Debris and Why It is Dangerous for Us?

Already in the sixties, at the beginning of space exploration, many people were saying that it was with space debris that mankind would face a bigger problem. But no one so far has suggested a real opportunity for the implementation of the large-scale cleaning of debris from near-Earth orbits. Some sporadic space debris removal programs do not provide the proper solution to the problem.

“It can remove only large debris larger than 20 cm. With objects smaller than 10 cm, there are big difficulties,” according to the Institute of Astronomy, Russian Academy of Sciences. As no technology today can defend space from debris, then space agencies have started being interested in prevention. New devices need standards. For example, a resource needs to be set up on the spacecraft board so that it will avoid meeting the debris and damage its trajectory. They are also equipped with armor that protects against space debris, but only against small ones.

One of the current working technologies in the line of space debris disposal is the displacement of old satellites into adjacent orbits. This can be done using capture vehicles that will tow the debris into orbit for disposal. In addition, leaving their places can be the remaining fuel spent on satellites, but these methods are not much in use. It is believed that space debris does not fall to Earth, but this is not entirely true. The Pacific Ocean has a cemetery for large satellites and cargo ships spent from Earth that don’t burn up in the atmosphere.

This is situated in the South Pacific Ocean near point Nemo, far from land on Earth. Not a single vessel of any sort is allowed to pass through this place, neither through sea nor air. And space debris becomes a problem of terrestrial debris. From 1971 to 2016, at least 260 devices were planted here. Now, the problem before the astrophysicists is how to clean up debris from the Clark belt, which is in one of the regions of geostationary orbit. It is an orbital position situated directly over the equator of the Earth at a distance of 35,786 km.

So, launching satellites in such an orbit is very attractive. Aircraft would need less fuel, and relatively compared to other orbits, it covers quite a lot of the Earth’s surface. The number of such satellite locations in geostationary orbit is small, about 180. On top of this, the geostationary orbit needs to be cleaned, whereas the clearance of space debris from the near vicinity of the ISS is important since the station is expensive and very fragile.

As the official website of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated, it was in October 2023 when the US authorities fined the television company Dish $150,000 because it had moved its satellite to a lower orbit than agreed (120 km instead of the agreed 300 km). The EchoStar-7 satellite has been in orbit since 2002. Upon the end of its life, the company deorbited and let the satellite drift into space after it had run out of fuel. This is the first-ever fine issued to a company for failure to remove space debris.

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