An illustration depicts orbital debris, or space junk, above Earth. The situation calls for a regulatory regime, say the researchers. File photo courtesy of the European Space Agency
April 23 (UPI) — Proliferating levels of debris pose a threat to the space environment and should be regulated as more satellites are launched into space, researchers say.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh said in a study published Friday in the journal natural astronomy the debris is troublesome, potentially affecting “professional astronomy, public stargazing, and the cultural significance of the sky” to indigenous peoples.
The situation may also harm “the sustainability of commercial, civic and military activity in space,” according to the report.
The research stems from a brief submitted to the United States Court of Appeals last year supporting the positions of several organizations against a Federal Communications Commission order granting license amendments for SpaceX Starlink satellites.
Each satellite has about a 50% chance of collision each year from untracked debris, and that risk increases dramatically with any increase in debris, the researchers said.
“We made the case that orbital space must be considered urgently as part of the human environment,” demanding “environmental protection through existing and new policies, rules and regulations to national and international levels,” the researchers wrote.
They urged decision-makers and policy makers “to consider the environmental impacts of all aspects of satellite constellations, including launch, operation and de-orbit, and to work with all stakeholders to co-create a shared, ethical and sustainable approach to space”.
Scientists have already spotted more than 30,000 pieces of space junk in Earth orbit through monitoring networks, according to a report from the European Space Agency released on Thursday – and that number is growing.
In the past two years alone, there has been a huge increase in the number of commercial satellites launched into near-Earth space, the vast majority of them being small satellites.
“Many of these constellations are launched to provide communication services around the world,” ESA said. “They have great benefits, but will pose a challenge to long-term sustainability.”
Low Earth orbit has become congested with increased traffic and “the enduring nature of space debris in low Earth orbit is causing a significant number of close encounters, called ‘conjunctions’, between active satellites and other objects”. the agency said.
On a positive note, the researchers noted that progress has been made in space debris mitigation measures over the past decade, including rockets burnt up via controlled post-launch re-entries and others placed on rockets. eye sockets that naturally disintegrate within 25 years.
But the researchers made it clear that more needs to be done based on future projections.
“Extrapolation of the current pattern of orbit utilization and launch traffic, combined with continued fragmentations and a limited post-mission elimination success rate could lead to a cascade of collision events at the over the next few centuries,” they warned.
The researchers said the most effective way to avoid more collisions is to follow guidelines developed by the Inter-Agency Debris Committee calling for the safe disposal of spacecraft at the end of the mission.
They also said another necessary step is to actively clean up existing debris.
The Clearspace-1 mission slated for launch in 2026 will be the first mission to remove a piece of space debris from orbit – a missing rocket part from a 2013 launch.
As more satellites reaching the end of their missions are disposed of responsibly, the researchers said there is still work to be done.
“A growing percentage of removal attempts are successful, but too many are drifting into significant orbits with no attempt made to remove them,” they said. “A successful removal rate of at least 90% for all types of space objects is necessary to limit the growth rate of space junk, before we can begin cleaning it up.”