Thursday, May 16, 2024

Debris Removal, Space Debris: Opinion: The problem with space junk – and how to solve it. May 9, 2024


New perspectives needed in removal of space debris.

"The incident in Naples serves as a wake-up call — a call to action demanding innovation, collaboration and responsible stewardship of our cosmic backyard  "

BEMA International


Opinion: The problem with space junk – and how to solve it

Editor’s Note: Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist and space environmentalist, is a winner of the MacArthur Fellowship and serves as faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. He is co-founder and chief scientist of Privateer, a space data intelligence company. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

In the tranquil city of Naples, Florida, the 
Otero family recently experienced a heart-stopping moment when a small fragment of space debris crashed through their roof, highlighting the hidden perils of our skies.  No one was hurt, but if the debris had struck someone, it could have ended in tragedy.

This incident serves as an example of the urgent need for a profound shift toward sustainable space practices.

The object that struck the Otero home wasn’t just a random piece of debris; it was a remnant from a discarded battery palette, originally weighing several tons, once used aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The battery palette was released from the ISS in 2021 and was expected to burn up upon reentry from orbit. But the smartphone-sized portion that struck the Otero residence on March 8 survived, and, in crashing back to earth, carried with it the weight of our unsustainable approach to space exploration. Our linear model — where satellites, like single-use plastics, are launched and abandoned — is contributing to the growing menace of space debris.

Proponents of a circular space economy advocate for a transformative departure from this wasteful paradigm. Much like embracing reusable materials on Earth, transitioning to a circular space economy means designing space systems with reuse, refurbishment and recyclability in mind. Satellites should be built to have extended lifespans, allowing for upgrades and modifications rather than being discarded after a single mission.

We don’t send our cars to the junkyard when their parts break. We repair them, and for those cars that are junk, many parts are salvaged and repurposed for other vehicles. Because all satellites are single-use, as soon as they die we need to launch something else, and the dead satellite needlessly consumes orbital carrying capacity (the load size that can safely be in orbit, not unlike the carrying capacity for a highway). It becomes a hazard to the safety of other space objects for years, decades or longer.

Rather than leaving defunct satellites to drift aimlessly in orbit or plunge unpredictably to Earth we must adopt controlled reentry procedures. This means purposefully making the satellite burn up in the atmosphere, while at the same time ensuring that the particles produced by this process don’t pollute it. That requires us to utilize research and engineering to determine the best materials and designs for satellites. This would ensure that objects safely burn up, minimizing the risk of debris scattering across our lands and oceans and not polluting the atmosphere in the process.

I’m not alone in my quest for celestial stewardship. The European Space Agency (ESA) has emerged as a trailblazer in the pursuit of a circular space economy. ESA has made a bold commitment to developing and implementing circular economy principles across its space missions and operations. This strategic initiative encompasses designing spacecraft for reusability, exploring innovative recycling technologies for space hardware, and prioritizing responsible end-of-life disposal through controlled re-entry or orbital maneuvers.

By embracing circular economy principles, ESA aims to minimize space debris, reduce mission costs and pave the way for a more sustainable — and in the long run, more successful — future in space exploration.

NASA, as a leader in space exploration, also has a critical role to play in advancing the development of reusable and recyclable space systems. The agency’s scientific and technological expertise can pave the way for innovative solutions that minimize waste and maximize sustainability in space missions.

NASA is not new to spearheading innovation when it’s needed. One example of NASA’s capability to lead innovation in critical moments is the development of the Space Shuttle program. The Space Shuttle, with its reusable orbiter and solid rocket boosters, represented a significant leap forward in space transportation technology. By designing a spacecraft that could be launched, returned to Earth and relaunched, NASA demonstrated the feasibility and benefits of reusable space systems.

In addition to launch vehicles, NASA has been at the forefront of developing innovative technologies for resource utilization and sustainability in space. Projects such as the Artemis program, aimed at returning humans to the Moon sustainably, involve the development of technologies for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and habitat construction using local materials.

Though NASA has released a space sustainability strategy, that strategy stops short of what would be required to make space exploration sustainable. NASA must join ESA in explicitly embracing the principles of a circular space economy for its strategic vision and operational frameworks. This includes integrating circular economy principles into mission planning, spacecraft design and end-of-life strategies. By leading the charge toward sustainable space practices, NASA can inspire other space agencies and private companies to follow suit.

The incident in Naples serves as a wake-up call — a call to action demanding innovation, collaboration and responsible stewardship of our cosmic backyard. Let us seize this pivotal moment to redefine our relationship with space — a relationship founded on principles of conservation, responsibility and reverence for the awe-inspiring wonders that grace our universe.

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