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ESA’s big plan to eliminate new space debris within a decade

What should we do about all that space debris? We’re aware of the increasing amount of debris up there, and we’re the ones to blame for it. Now, our planet is surrounded by a ring of orbital trash, and the ESA has a plan to quit adding to the mess. You can’t keep kicking a can down the road without eventually stumbling over a pile of them. Politicians are pros at pushing problems into the future and then pointing fingers when we’re knee-deep in cans. However, folks in the scientific world can’t afford the same luxury of being intellectually dishonest.

We all know about the space junk issue, and it’s not getting any better. In the past few years, we’ve been launching satellites like there’s no tomorrow. When you add up all the satellites from previous decades, it creates a jam-packed zone that keeps getting busier. Just like those cans kicked down the road, a lot of stuff up there isn’t doing anything useful anymore. It’s just hanging out. If only someone had seen this coming. However, the ESA is pledging to follow a plan that aims to prevent adding more debris to space.

“130 million pieces of space debris larger than a millimeter orbit Earth, threatening satellites now and in the future,” the ESA wrote. “Once a week, a satellite or rocket body reenters uncontrolled through our atmosphere. Behaviours in space have to change.”

ESA’s Zero Debris Approach to take on space debris

There’s no denying that things need a shake-up. But in a global landscape where not every country is keen on teaming up, and private companies are piling up stuff in space, change is a tough nut to crack. The ESA is stepping up its game with a fresh approach they’re calling the “Zero Debris Approach.”

The space junk issue isn’t some future problem – it’s happening now. Back in 2009, two satellites smashed into each other over Siberia. One was dead, but the other was alive and kicking. Not only did it wipe out an active Iridium satellite, but the collision also spewed out a ton more debris. What’s really concerning is that this crash was expected. Out of all the satellites that could collide, these two weren’t even among the top 200 in terms of risky closeness.

There’s another concern on the rise – even if we don’t launch more stuff, the risk of existing debris crashing into each other could make things worse. The nightmare scenario is the Kessler syndrome, where these collisions create more debris, setting off a chain reaction of crashes that could render Earth’s orbit completely unusable.

“It has been estimated that even in the case of no further launches into orbit, collisions among the existing space objects can lead to further growth in space debris population,” the ESA writes

Lack of space debris solutions

Back in 1978, American astrophysicist Donald Kessler foresaw the Kessler syndrome. Fast forward to 2012, he teamed up with others to write an article, stating that we’ve already crossed the point of no return when it comes to orbital debris.

People are buzzing about creating systems to clean up the mess in space, especially the big stuff like whole satellites. They’re tossing around ideas like harpoons, robotic arms, and even using other satellites to shove debris into graveyard orbits. But when it comes to preventing more junk from piling up, there’s not a lot of action. Now, almost 15 years after the collision, it looks like the ESA finally got the memo.

“We are seeing a dramatically increased use of space, but still insufficient technology to prevent the risks that follow. Our aim to become debris neutral in just a few years will require clearing precious Earth orbits once a mission is complete, and if the mission fails to do this, it must be actively removed by dedicated vehicles,” explains Holger Krag, ESA’s Head of Space Safety.

The ESA’s Zero Debris Approach kicks off with how they plan their missions. In 2022, they went all out with a big study that roped in all their sites across Europe and got input from 270 experts from different fields. This study came up with suggestions to guide the ESA in hitting Zero Debris by 2030. These suggestions are the foundation of the newly released ‘ESA Space Debris Mitigation Requirements.’

Recommendations mentioned in the document:

  • Guarantee successful disposal
  • Improve orbital clearance
  • Avoid in-orbit collisions
  • Avoid internal break-ups
  • Prevent the intentional release of space debris
  • Improve on-ground casualty risk assessment
  • Guarantee Dark and Quiet skies
  • Beyond the protected regions

What are other space agencies doing about space debris?

That’s a pretty thorough list, and it needs to be. We depend a lot on satellites, but most of us don’t give them much thought. They’re a crucial building block in today’s society.

“As space infrastructure has become the backbone of our modern society, the proliferation of space debris is threatening our way of life. Now is the time to act as a community to channel our collective efforts,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher. “To implement the Zero Debris Charter, ESA will focus on developing ground-breaking technologies for satellite end-of-life disposal, in-orbit servicing and active debris removal. In addition, ESA will work hand-in-hand with institutions in charge of regulatory aspects.”

So, what’s the deal with the other space agencies worldwide? NASA has talked a big game about ‘limiting’ space junk and even has an office focused on the issue. But they haven’t taken the kind of bold move the ESA just did.

What about China? They’re figuring out how to bring down space junk, but there’s no strong, clear commitment. And ISRO? India’s got a Center for Space Debris Research, but they haven’t made any solid promises about not making the problem worse.

And what’s up with Russia? Does whatever remains of Roscosmos have a game plan? They throw out all sorts of statements, but no one’s buying it, especially when they keep messing with everyone else’s satellites.

Props to the ESA, right? Despite being a crew of 22 different nations, they’ve joined forces and are the ones taking the lead on this problem.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.