Space Debris Problem Getting Worse, New Report Says

by Nancy Atkinson on September 1, 2011

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Space Debris in polar orbit. Image Credit: ESA

In the movie WALL-E, the Earth is surrounded by a dense field of orbiting junk. The problem of space debris is not that bad yet, but is potentially heading in that direction. A new report released today by the National Research Council says the problem of space debris is getting worse and has passed a “tipping point.” The report says that while NASA has done a good job using their available resources to research the issue, decreased funding and increased responsibilities for the space agency is not a good combination for the future, and NASA has not been able to keep pace with increasing hazards posed by abandoned equipment, spent rocket bodies, and other debris orbiting the Earth.

“The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts,” said Donald Kessler, chair of the committee that wrote the report and retired head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. “NASA needs to determine the best path forward for tackling the multifaceted problems caused by meteoroids and orbital debris that put human and robotic space operations at risk.”

There’s enough debris currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures, the report notes. In addition, collisions with debris have disabled and even destroyed satellites in the past, as in the collision in 2009 between an Iridium satellite and a inoperative Russian satellite. Several recent near-misses of the International Space Station requiring evasive maneuvers and sending astronauts to the Soyuz vehicles as a precaution underscores the value in monitoring and tracking orbital debris as precisely as possible.

It is fitting that Kessler lead this committee: he laid out a scenario back in 1978 called the Kessler Syndrome where the amount and size of objects in Earth’s orbit could eventually become so large that they would continually collide with one another and create even more debris, eventually causing a “cascade” of collisions which could make low Earth orbit unusable for decades.

From the new report, it appears the Kessler Syndrome is not just an abstract event that might occur in the future. It’s happening now. The amount of debris is now growing exponentially, as just two collisions since January 2007 has doubled the total number of debris fragments in Earth’s orbit, according to the NRC report.

NASA had asked for the report; specifically, NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance, Bryan O’Connor, asked the NRC in 2010 to independently examine the agency’s work on debris.

“We thank the National Research Council for their thorough review in this report,” said NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey. “We will study their findings and recommendations carefully and use them to advise our future actions in this important area of work.”

The report, however, does not provide NASA with many specific ideas but says NASA should develop a formal strategic plan to better allocate its limited resources devoted to the management of orbital debris. In addition, removal of debris from the space environment or other actions to mitigate risks may be necessary.

For example, NASA should initiate a new effort to record, analyze, report, and share data on spacecraft anomalies. This will provide additional knowledge about the risk from debris particulates too small to be cataloged under the current system yet large enough to potentially cause damage.

The report also suggests more work internationally on this problem, since it is a global problem caused by other nations besides the US. Over the past decade and a half, the world’s major space agencies have been developing a set of orbital debris mitigation guidelines aimed at stemming the creation of new space debris and lessening the impact of existing debris on satellites and human spaceflight. Most agencies are in the process of implementing or have already implemented these voluntary measures which include on-board passive measures to eliminate latent sources of energy related to batteries, fuel tanks, propulsion systems and pyrotechnics.

But the growing number of developing countries that are launching using satellites, and they need to be encouraged to use these measures as well.

In addition, NASA should lead public discussion of orbital debris and emphasize that it is a long-term concern for society that must continue to be addressed.

Congress also needs to be aware of the problem and provide adequate funding for the issue.

You can read the report here. (free as a pdf download).

Sources: NRC press release, Washington Post

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 5:47 PM

messy problem. too bad human (and governmental) nature is such that these problems are only tackled when they’ve already reached the tipping point of irrefutable proof.

Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM

But this is something that SpaceX can focus on! Cleaning up spacedebris can become profitable.

Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM

But this is something that SpaceX can focus on! Cleaning up spacedebris can become profitable.

Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM

But this is something that SpaceX can focus on! Cleaning up spacedebris can become profitable.

Tony Power September 2, 2011 at 4:14 AM

How much of the junk that is in orbit could be recycled? Would it be possible to put it into a higher orbit where, once there is a bigger presence in space a recycling plant can capture it and recycle it?

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 7:55 PM

I was not thinking about recycling, I was thinking a SpaceX space cleaning company that cleans an orbit before they put an new satellite up there. It could be profitable for a SpaceX company to be in this space cleaning business.

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 7:55 PM

I was not thinking about recycling, I was thinking a SpaceX space cleaning company that cleans an orbit before they put an new satellite up there. It could be profitable for a SpaceX company to be in this space cleaning business.

WaxyMary September 2, 2011 at 8:40 PM

A ‘recycle/reuse the refuse’ plan to abate these hazards is not going to happen, however, an orbital mass driver would have some use for the captured smaller pieces. Rocks are sorta rare in that cubic of space.

Mary

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 7:55 PM

I was not thinking about recycling, I was thinking a SpaceX space cleaning company that cleans an orbit before they put an new satellite up there. It could be profitable for a SpaceX company to be in this space cleaning business.

Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM

But this is something that SpaceX can focus on! Cleaning up spacedebris can become profitable.

Anonymous September 1, 2011 at 6:19 PM

But this is something that SpaceX can focus on! Cleaning up spacedebris can become profitable.

HeadAroundU September 1, 2011 at 10:38 PM

That’s the way it goes. Let’s regulate it, politics to the left, otherwise magic hand of the universe will solve it for us. If we wanna be hardcore right, let SpaceX fix it, but very quickly, magic hand of the market.

I’m surprised that the Sun is still shining. :D I’m wondering how does it affect light.

William Sparrow September 1, 2011 at 11:02 PM

Light is probably not affected significantly, as the loss of Ozone is letting in more radiation, heat, and light.

HeadAroundU September 1, 2011 at 10:38 PM

That’s the way it goes. Let’s regulate it, politics to the left, otherwise magic hand of the universe will solve it for us. If we wanna be hardcore right, let SpaceX fix it, but very quickly, magic hand of the market.

I’m surprised that the Sun is still shining. :D I’m wondering how does it affect light.

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 1:13 AM

Yall are all being downers. I think we should build a batch of laser platform satellites, remote controlled from the surface by old Atari Asteroids players. Make a competition out of vaporizing them, with more points (bonuses) for destroying smaller pieces. Now, doesn’t that sound like fun?

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 6:52 AM

Space debris orbiting Earth cannot stay in space forever. The drag of the exosphere will bring it down with time. The total mass of the space debris is less than 50.000 tons, about the mass of a small ocean liner. If debris particles collide with each other, they are broken up into smaller particles, which are slowed down by the exosphere faster, as their energy is lower. So: relax!

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 3:35 PM

I get that the space debris will eventually make it’s way back to Earth and burn up, but how long does it take for the average 6 inch galvanized steel bolt or other metal junk that is travelling several thousands of kms per hour, which is several times faster than a bullet, to make it’s way into the Earth’s lower atmosphere and burn up? If it’s weeks or months, no problem. If it’s years, some concern. If it’s decades, we’ve got a problem.

Alan Garde September 3, 2011 at 12:43 PM

The higher stuff will be there for thousands of years !
The stuff in LEO a few years …

Rob Hemmings September 2, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Clearing ‘space junk’ was central to the episode ‘Conflict’ in Gerry Anderson’s 1970s TV series ‘UFO’, first broadcast on British TV channel ‘ATV’ on 7/10/1970. Yet another example of Sci-Fi predicting the future. In that episode, the International Astronomical Commission was reluctant to fund he cost of removal, so perhaps the prediction was a little too close to reality!

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 10:12 PM

I think NASA should look at a recent blog post about a new technology that could take care of space debris–the Orbital Adjustable Mirror. http://buzzbomber1.blogspot.com/2011/09/space-mirror-hack.html

Anonymous September 2, 2011 at 10:12 PM

I think NASA should look at a recent blog post about a new technology that could take care of space debris–the Orbital Adjustable Mirror. http://buzzbomber1.blogspot.com/2011/09/space-mirror-hack.html

Jazzee September 8, 2011 at 6:29 AM

Dear Team and readers, as a participant of Singularity University ’11 at NASA Ames, I would be very happy to share with you my video about space debris :

http://twitc.com/Prx1eWiui

My goal now is to create an INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION where country from all over the world coud collaborate, cooperate and regulate the space trash/debris/satellite regulations.

Feel free to contact me if interested , my e-mail is in the video.

I hope you will like it and don’t hesitate to publish it and share it.

Jaz.

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