AsianScientist (Jul. 17, 2021) – If you spot a twinkling streak in the night sky, chances are you’re not looking at stars, but manmade satellites.
From space stations to drones, researchers have launched thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit—altitudes of up to 2,000 kilometers above sea level—using them to capture planetary data and aid weather forecasting. Commercially, the telecommunications sector also transmits data through satellites, connecting the world through radio broadcasts and Internet access.
Of the 5,000 satellites currently in orbit, however, less than 2,000 are operational, while the rest are left as junk clogging up space highways. As they zip across space at high speeds, over a million pieces of debris may bump into other objects, endangering space exploration missions and chipping off to create even more fragments.
Scientists fear that accumulating space pollution will someday lead to a cascading collision of debris—a phenomenon called the Kessler Syndrome—according to Ms. Ai Makino, Chief Information Officer of space sustainability company Astroscale.
“A belt formed by these objects or fragments of objects around the Earth would threaten future space activities and disrupt the benefits we receive from services from space such as GPS, weather monitoring and disaster management,” she added.
At Japan-headquartered Astroscale, the space cleanup crew is on a mission to prevent the Kessler Syndrome from unfolding. To preserve orbital environments, Makino and colleagues are developing technologies for debris removal, building convincing business cases and tapping international policymakers.
One of their major projects is the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration (ELSA-d), launched just last March 2021. To capture space debris, the two-satellite innovation is designed to latch onto connecting areas called docking plates on the target satellites. Once docked, the removal technology can then pull these critical fragments out of orbit and destroy them upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
“We will go up to space and find the failed satellite or the satellite that has come to its end-of-life. We bring it out of the way so it’s not a hazard to other active satellites,” said Makino.
Having proven that their end-of-life service works, the Astroscale team is now looking to incorporate their docking plate solution on new satellites set for liftoff, whether from companies or space agencies.
When the satellites are damaged or nearing their end-of-life, Makino explained that the debris remover would be sent to deorbit these defunct satellites, identifying them via the docking areas and crucially preventing them from becoming yet another addition to the space junk pile.
With more than 10,000 satellites scheduled for deployment in the coming decade, ELSA-d represents a proactive strategy to keep orbital pollution at bay. But remediating the space ecosystem also requires taking out the debris already in orbit, Makino noted.
As such, development is underway for active debris removal solutions that forego the need for docking platforms to lock onto existing space junk. In both docking and non-docking cases, Makino and the team carefully analyze in situ data on the movement trajectory of orbiting objects—especially erratically tumbling ones—to avoid collisions when approaching and capturing the debris.
By partnering with space agencies around the world, Makino hopes to set into motion space sustainability missions similar to the coastal cleanup drives on Earth’s shores. These collaborative efforts, and Astroscale’s global reach from Singapore to the US, are especially important as there is no one governing body that has clear authority over regulating human’s use of space.
As more people recognize the importance of preserving the space environment, Makino shared that international guidelines such as those published by the United Nations are crucial to encouraging responsible space development practices. Collectively, Astroscale, space experts, and the public and private sector are springing into action to protect Earth’s orbits.
“This is the only way that we’re going to get toward the regulatory environment that can maintain orbital sustainability and it’s encouraging to see these significant steps being made,” Makino concluded.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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