Space above earth is crowded, littered; Future projects face difficulty

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Satellites, rockets and other junks have crowded the space above the Earth despite warnings

Even as firms race to launch satellites one after the other, recent reports show that the space outside earth is so filled with junk that it is alarming. 

NASA scientist Donald Kessler warned in 1978 of a possible outer space catastrophic, rippling chain reaction. The hypothesis, known as Kessler Syndrome, says that space above Earth could one day become so crowded, so polluted with both active satellites and the debris of past space explorations, that it could make future space projects more complicated, if not impossible.

The CEO of Rocket Lab, a US-based start-up launch company, said that the company is already beginning to experience the impact of rising outer space congestion.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said that the sheer number of objects in space right now, a number that is increasing steadily, is making it more difficult to find a clear route for new satellites to be launched by rockets.

“This has a massive impact on the launch side as rockets have to try and weave their way up in between these satellite constellations,” Mr Beck said.

Part of the issue is that outer space remains basically unregulated. The last generally negotiated international treaty has not been revised in 50 year and that has left the commercial space industry to monitor itself.

Rocket Lab set out to design lightweight rockets that can carry lots of small satellites to space on a monthly or even weekly basis. These rockets are smaller than Elon Musk owned SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon rockets. Since 2018, for a number of scientific and commercial purposes, Rocket Lab has launched 12 successful missions and a total of 55 satellites to orbit. Beck said the problems with in-orbit traffic have become worse in the last 12 months.

Persistent warnings

For decades, researchers have cautioned that congestion in outer space may have catastrophic implications. Kessler’s warning said that a single collision between two objects could set off a destructive chain reaction if space traffic becomes too busy, which essentially transforms space around Earth into an extraterrestrial wasteland.

One piece of debris could strike a satellite and that effect could create hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of debris in its own right, just like a car crash, but at orbital speeds of upwards of 17,000 miles an hour. These new fragments are capable of hitting other objects in space, which may hit other objects and on and on, until the low Earth space becomes saturated with a growing number of uncontrollable projectiles.

Further, a satellite, a launch vehicle, or even an orbital space station with humans inside could be knocked out by them.

Companies like SpaceX has said they are determined to be responsible in outer space and claims that it has fitted its satellites with the ability to navigate out of the way of other objects in orbit automatically.

Too many objects out there

But Moriba Jah, a University of Texas at Austin astrodynamicist and a leading space traffic expert, said much of the Earth’s orbit below around 750 miles is becoming a risk zone. Jah developed a database to help monitor possible space collisions, and an online map uses dots to indicate how many objects are expected to pass within six miles of each other in every 20 minutes.

The dots have become too dense over the past year to count. In order to make forecasts more accurate, Jah hopes that more satellite operators and rocket firms, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab, can share real-time position data on their rockets and satellites.

More on the way

Jah warns that though there hasn’t been any crashes this year, but it may only be a matter of time. Moreover, there’s a line of other companies waiting to create their own giant constellations, even if existing firms can manage to keep its region in space clean. Amazon and UK-based OneWeb are both planning to use hundreds of their own satellites to develop their own telecoms projects. Swarms of junk currently whizzing through space, including discarded rocket components, dead satellites and debris from past collisions and anti-satellite tests, are contributing to the issue.

The junk is practically impossible on a wide scale to clean up. And it’s going to take years, if not centuries, for it to fall out of orbit naturally. With each new satellite launch, the chances of avoiding disaster only get slimmer, Jah added. He remains hopeful that, even with swarms of satellites in orbit, we will escape Kessler Syndrome, but only if the world’s SpaceX’s and Amazons continue to abide by those behavioral laws and norms.

Though he is not against network satellites as it provide internet facilities to the world, Beck said he is worried about how easily he has seen space traffic affect his own business. And he’s concerned that the space industry’s new players might be reckless.

“It’s just a race to orbit, and there’s just zero consideration for what environment we’ll leave behind,” he said. “Anyone flying a launch vehicle now needs to be really cognizant of their responsibilities.”

Regulations in space

Recently, Rocket Lab launched its own internal investigation into the traffic issue, aiming to determine how troublesome it might be as the company’s satellite constellations expand.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine also urged US senators to fund the effort to regulate space recently, noting that even the International Space Station has had to escape orbital debris three times this year so far, an alarming rate.

“We’re providing global space situational awareness and space traffic management to the world for free,” Bridenstine said at the hearing. “We need to take that data, combine it with commercial and international data to create a single integrated space picture that can be shared with the world. And by the way the world needs to support us in that effort.”

The Outer Peace Treaty

It was at a time when only two nations were going to space, that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which remains the primary international document governing outer space operations, was agreed to. Now that more countries and commercial firms are also in the spaceflight sector, regulators need to enforce new laws.

Recent attempts have been “incredibly inspiring, but also incredibly depressing,” Beck said about the updation of rules on the international stage. And even though nations were willing to come to the table, since the 1970s, nothing has really been settled upon. “We are very pro-democratizing space,” Beck said. “But it has to be done in a way that is responsible for each generation.”