The U.S. is serious about space junk

After five years, satellites will be forced to orbit the Earth by the FCC. A growing private sector focuses on space junk.

After more than 60 years of space races and rocket launches, as well as booming satellite activity, the U.S. government has taken legal steps to reduce the amount of space junk — that cloud of hazardous debris still orbiting Earth — by taking legal measures.

The Federal Communications Commission imposed a five-year lifetime limit on new satellites last week. After they have completed their mission, they will need to be deorbited and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Although a 25-year life expectancy was established as a guideline before now, it has never been legally enforced.

This new rule only applies to satellites launched by U.S. operators. It won’t solve space junk problems on its own. Experts agree that it is a good start, and in line with international efforts.

“It’s all about setting rules for space and having a legal framework that people must adhere to,” Carolin Frueh (associate professor of aeronautics and astronautic engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana) said. “That’s an important step.”

The Earth’s orbital space, which is approximately 5,000 satellites in number, is huge. It is estimated that millions of pieces of space junk are circling the planet, including entire rocket stages, inactive satellites, and lost pieces of space equipment.

Many of these pieces are smaller than nickel. They orbit at over 15,000 mph and experts estimate that there are approximately 30,000 pieces of space junk larger than a nickel. This could be a problem and possibly a disaster.

There have been close calls. The International Space Station made a change in its orbit in June to avoid the debris of a Soviet-era satellite. This satellite had been destroyed by a Russian anti-satellite missile test. During its 23-year mission, the ISS has been forced to avoid space debris orbiting more than 30 times. It has also been damaged by space junk. On another occasion, the ISS crew was ready to evacuate in case of a collision.

The problem is only going to get worse. According to one report, about 10,000 additional pieces of space junk could be found in orbit before the end of the century.

Thomas Schildknecht is a professor of Astronomy at the University of Bern and director of the Zimmerwald Observatory. “Space debris has not yet reached the point where we cannot conduct any more space missions,” he said. “But, the risk is growing, and if you don’t pay attention then in 10 years we’ll reach the point where we can no longer do anything.”

Since the early days of space debris tracking, Schildknecht’s team has used lasers to track the trajectories of some of the most dangerous pieces. Astronomers also use the database to plan observations for when they won’t be interrupted by space junk.

He said, “We can get precise information so that we can inform astronomers whenever something is flying past, so they can pick their observing times slightly differently.” It’s already a problem.

Schildknecht’s database is one of the most consulted sources by commercial space companies like COMSPOC, a Pennsylvania-based firm that offers, among other things to satellite operators, to keep them informed about any threats in orbits including space debris so they can avoid them if necessary.

Dan Oltrogge (chief scientist at the company) said that he is happy with the FCC’s five-year lifespan and believes it could be more stringent.

He pointed out that the new constellations such as Starlink from Elon Musk’s SpaceX won’t be affected by the rule, which is a network of thousands of satellites providing internet access almost anywhere in the world.

He said, “They’re showing that you shouldn’t do it in five years. You should do it way better.”

Experts believe that the best way to solve the problem of space junk is to send out robot spacecraft to collect it all and then deorbit it.

Astroscale, a Japanese startup, captured a piece of space junk last year in a test and made a deal to launch its satellites with OneWeb.

Clearspace was selected by the European Space Agency to remove objects from orbit in 2019. This robot spacecraft has large claws and is designed for small-sized objects. In 2026, tests are expected to begin in orbit.

Starfish Space, a Seattle-based startup, is creating a space-tug named Otter that will service satellites in orbit. It will also push space debris into low orbits so it can fall to Earth. The company plans to launch in 2024.

These active measures are also key to the bill for the ORBITS Act, which would require NASA to find new solutions to the problem of space junk.

Frueh from Purdue suggested that another solution to space debris problems will be to stop junk from being placed in orbit.

She stated, “Moving in a direction of active elimination is certainly what we require.” It will not be an isolated measure. … It is important to consider space debris issues when designing missions and to get them down as quickly as possible after they are completed.

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