“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”
John F. Kennedy
In November, Russia destroyed one of its own old space satellites, Cosmos 1408, a 2,200-kg intelligence satellite launched in 1982, littering low Earth orbit with an undetermined number of fragments and forcing astronauts on the International Space Station to temporarily take shelter.
On February 10, 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial spacecraft. The collision added more than 2,300 pieces of large, trackable debris and smaller debris to the inventory of space junk.
In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite test that used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, adding more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and untrackable smaller space debris.
And in February of 2018, Elon Musk launched his $100,000 Tesla Roadster into space on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The Roadster, with its mannequin driver that was dubbed Starman, now remains in an elliptical path around the sun. Musk said: “It’s kind of silly and fun, but silly and fun things are important.”
The commercialization of space is on a trajectory of exponential growth and with it, mostly unregulated access. Geometric Energy Corporation (GEC), a Canadian startup that provides technology services, is in the process of space advertising. GEC is planning to offer new space billboards that would be available in the night sky above major cities for around $974,000 per month.
The amount of space debris now validates the Kessler syndrome, a concept proposed in a 1978 paper by Donald Kessler and Burton Cour-Palais, “The Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt.” The Kessler syndrome suggests that if the past growth rate in the catalogued population continued, around the year 2000 a more hazardous population of small debris would be generated as a result of fragments from random collisions between catalogued objects. This new source of debris would quickly produce a hazard that exceeds the hazard from natural meteoroids. Over a longer period of time, the growth in small debris would become exponential, even if a zero net input rate in the catalogue is maintained.
According to NASA reports, the Department of Defense’s Global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors were actively tracking more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or space junk. Much more debris, too small to be tracked but capable of inflicting catastrophic damage to operational space installations, remains untracked. These objects, travelling at approximately 15,700 mph (more than 20 times the speed of sound), pose a growing threat to the integrity of low-orbit human flight. As NASA notes:
The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, including to the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
It is estimated that there are over 100 million man-made objects circling the globe in low Earth orbit; the majority are pieces of debris from collisions or discarded components of spacecraft and satellite launches.
Stuff in SpaceReal-time 3D map of objects in Earth orbit
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there have been more than 6,050 launches over the past 60 years, resulting in some 56,450 tracked objects in orbit, of which about 28,160 remain in space and are regularly tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.Only a small fraction—about 4,000—are intact operational satellites today.
This problem has been in the making for a long time.
The United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in 1958. UNOOSA is responsible for the planning and implementation of activities aimed at building member-state capacity in space law and policy.
In 1962, UNOOSA initiated a Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space to identify which states bear international responsibility and liability for space objects.
In 1974, a Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, negotiated by the Legal Subcommittee, was adopted by the General Assembly (General Assembly resolution 3235 (XXIX)), and entered into force on September 15, 1976.
The agreement included provision for a mechanism that provided states with a means to assist in the identification of space objects. The Registration Convention expanded the scope of the United Nations Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space and addressed issues relating to states’ responsibilities concerning their space objects. The secretary-general was to maintain the Register and ensure full and open access to the information provided by states and international intergovernmental organizations.
The Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space provides a comprehensive list.
Today, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), composed of twelve member agencies representing eleven nations and the regional ESA, is recognized as the preeminent international technical organization for all issues associated with orbital debris.
The IADC is an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to man-made and natural debris in space. The IADC’s primary purposes are to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options.
The IADC includes the space agencies of China (CNSA) as of 1995; France (CNES), India (ISRO), and the United Kingdom (then BNSC, now UKSA) as of 1996; Germany (then DARA, now DLR) as of 1997; Italy (ASI) as of 1998; Ukraine (then NSAU, now SSAU) since 2000.
Conventions, committees, and treaties, however, only represent bureaucratic structures and processes—not action. Despite the rhetorical commitment to this problem, it has been allowed to escalate to a point where solutions have become long overdue, and future space exploration is being increasingly threatened by avoidable, catastrophic events.
There is increasing concern that what has been done to confront this challenge has been considerably insufficient. There is today an unprecedented proliferation of large satellites (unmanned and manned objects) proposed for near future launches, each likely to drastically increase the existing orbital debris in coming years. Some have even suggested curtailing the number of future launches to ensure the long-term sustainability of space, until there is an improvement in the debris situation.
It would be both arrogant and short-sighted to think that orbital access will be restricted to only the most technologically advanced countries, that this problem will be contained or somehow mitigated. History has demonstrated that technological progress occurs exponentially. Moore’s Law is exemplified by the advances demonstrated by India, North Korea, and China in recent decades, not to mention the proliferation of private space ventures on the way today. There are undoubtedly increasing numbers of nations investing in indigenous space programs in the coming decades. The reality is that near-Earth orbit is accessible to just about anyone who has the time, interest, and money to build a launch system.
The ESA cautions that as the amount of debris grows, more collisions will occur. The agency says the rising debris object counts are increasing the probability for catastrophic collisions; doubling the number of objects will increase the collision risk by approximately four times:
In a “business-as-usual” scenario, such collisions will start prevailing over the now-dominating explosions within a few decades from now. Ultimately, collision fragments will collide with collision fragments, until the entire population is reduced to subcritical sizes.
Not only are the risks of unintentional collision with space debris increasing exponentially with the proliferation of satellite launches, the opportunities for orbital slots and frequencies (windows for safe launch opportunities) are diminished.
In October of 2020, two pieces of space junk—a defunct Russian navigation satellite launched in 1989 and a spent Chinese rocket part from a 2009 launch, each about the weight of a compact car—just barely missed colliding. Had the collision occurred, the debris cloud would have jeopardized other satellites and spacecraft for decades.
A safe and accessible orbital environment is not the right of the few who are first in space. It is a right for all humanity. The approach the first few have taken, and continue to take, is creating the same rationale that is today impeding a global response to climate change—later entrants wanting to do what the earlier entrants did, despite the damage done by the early entrants. This is a lesson that would be well worth keeping in mind. The degradation of any environment is a collective liability. The impunity with which lower orbit pollution is being perpetuated is a catastrophe waiting to happen and yet another broken promise being handed to future generations.
This threat to the low Earth orbit region—the Kessler syndrome—needs introduction to the public policy process. It must be avoided by the timely application of mitigation and remediation measures on an international scale.
It seems that despite all the rhetoric, too much faith is still placed in relying on a wing and a prayer.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Photo by Arnie Chou from Pexels.