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Saving Space: The Piling Threat of Space Debris

Saving Space: The Piling Threat of Space Debris
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The quantity of space debris is growing along with human activities in space, which puts satellites, spacecraft, and even humans at serious risk. Ensuring the sustainability and safety of space operations requires effective management of space debris.

What is space debris or space junk?

Space junk, also known as space debris, is any man-made object orbiting Earth that no longer serves a useful purpose. This includes everything from defunct satellites and rocket parts to lost tools and even paint chips. As per NASA, there are more than 25,000 objects bigger than 10 cm in space. There are roughly 500,000 particles with a diameter of 1 to 10 cm and more than 100 million particles bigger than 1 mm are present currently in space.

Why is space debris management essential?

The United States, with its long history of space exploration, is home to a significant portion of the world’s space junk. This debris poses a major threat to operational satellites, which are crucial for everything from GPS navigation to weather forecasting. A collision with even a small piece of debris could cripple or destroy a satellite, causing widespread disruptions.

Space debris management isn’t optional, it’s crucial for several reasons:

Satellite damage

GPS, weather forecasting, and communication systems can all be negatively impacted by debris as small as 1 cm. Even such small particles have the potential to destroy vital parts of working satellites.

Risk to human spaceflight

Debris can endanger astronauts’ lives and impede future space exploration efforts. It has become a serious hazard to crewed missions. With interest in private space exploration higher than ever, the risk space debris poses to human lives is not as small as its size anymore.

Uncontrolled re-entry

Large fragments of debris have the potential to uncontrollably re-enter the atmosphere, endangering persons and property below. It is impossible to plan for their erratic impact areas.

Pollution of near-Earth space

Growing amounts of trash produce a “space junkyard,” which limits the number of viable orbits and raises the risk of collisions, impeding future space activity. Opportunities for scientific investigation and study may tumble down due to this.

Limited orbital resources

The utilizable orbits of Earth are a limited resource. Unmanaged debris might make important orbits unusable, which would hinder space exploration and development in the long run.

Satellite replacement costs

Frequently occurring collisions may necessitate the expensive replacement of damaged satellites, affecting government and commercial organizations that depend on these services.

What’s being done about it?

The good news is that there are efforts underway to address the space junk problem. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed new regulations in 2023 to prevent piling up of debris and maintain vital orbits for satellite services and human spaceflight. It also suggests limiting the amount of time upper rocket stages can stay in orbit and require operators to track and deorbit their satellites at the end of their lifespans.

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