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Essay: The Problem of Orbital Debris

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  • Subject area(s): Engineering essays
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  • Published: September 13, 2021*
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“It’s a serious issue. We have oceans and rivers, and we pollute them until they become almost unusable. We’ve done exactly the same with space. We’ve left junk everywhere.” – Melissa Davey expresses her concern in her recent article. Humans have polluted oceans and rivers with their waste. As a consequence, marine and water pollution recently have received huge attention. However, there exists another kind of pollution which people are not aware of, but it is secretly affecting them. It is space pollution. In other words, the Low Earth Orbit is currently being packed with orbital debris. Orbital debris is a problem that should receive more serious global attention as space is a scarce and valuable resource that humans share. Especially, the Low Earth Orbit is the gateway to outer space. If it became impassable, many negative consequences would happen to humankind and society. This paper will revolve around orbital debris and its impact on society.
To many people, orbital debris may sound unfamiliar. In fact, it is just space garbage.

According to NASA, orbital debris refers to man-made object orbiting the Earth which no longer serves a useful function such as used spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, and fragmentation debris (“Space Debris and Human Spacecraft”). To better explain, after its lifespan, a satellite is required by the Federal Communications Commission to be boosted to a higher orbit to not be pulled back to the Earth by gravity (Hill). Besides that method, a satellite can also use fuel to lower its orbit until it enters the Earth’s atmosphere and ignites (Hill). Unfortunately, both methods are costly as not all satellites adopt them (Hill). Instead, satellite operators leave them wandering in the Low Earth Orbit (Hill). The continuance of the process has left the low Earth orbit filled with abandoned satellites.

Besides dead satellites, rocket stages also make up the junk in the low Earth orbit.

Particularly, a rocket consists of multiple stages to assist the main stage to reach its desired altitude (“Multi-Stage and Clustered Rocket”). Due to the rocket’s heavyweight, the process usually costs a great amount of fuel, each stage has to be dropped once it is empty to ensure the lightweight of the rocket (“Multi-Stage and Clustered Rocket”)

Orbital debris is problematic and dangerous for a fact that they travel at considerably high speeds. According to NASA, their speeds can reach up to 17,500 mph (“Space Debris and Human Spacecraft”). At that speed range, a tiny piece of debris could cause serious damage to any objects that it collided with (“Space Debris and Human Spacecraft”). Most importantly, low Earth orbit is where the functioning satellites and space crafts are. Therefore, with high-speed junks wandering within the same area, the satellites and space crafts could be seriously damaged if collisions happened. In an article written in 2018, Mosher reports that there are approximately 23,000 man-made objects in the size larger than a softball traveling in the orbit. In addition, Mosher adds, “There may also be some 650,000 softball-to-fingernail-size objects and 170 million bits of debris smaller than the tip of a pen.” The numbers from Mosher prove a fact that the Low Earth Orbit is incredibly crowded, not to mention it has been a year since Mosher provided these statistics. More importantly, a large amount of debris means a high chance of collisions. If collisions occurred, more debris would be created, adding more garbage into the crowded Low Earth Orbit.

The danger that orbital debris poses is not far-off. In fact, many unfortunate events have happened due to orbital debris. As an illustration, on February 2009, a used Russian satellite collided with a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial satellite, while completely destroyed it and created more than 2,000 pieces of debris in the low Earth orbit (“Space Debris and Human Spacecraft”). Another collision occurred in 1996 when a French satellite was hit by the junk of a French rocket which exploded a decade ago (“Space Debris and Human Spacecraft”). The fact that the accident occurred 13 years ago proves a point that orbital debris is not a recent issue. It has existed for years. If the problem is not combated, it will only continue to worsen as the amount of orbital debris continues to compound.

To fully understand the danger of orbital debris, it is important to recognize the value of space and its benefits to humankind. Thanks to technology, human species has become as advanced as it is today. However, what many people are not aware of is space has helped make technology possible. As a matter of fact, Low Earth Orbit is the house to thousands of satellites working to make people’s lives better. In addition, Vandenberg suggests, GPS systems, cell phone signals, cellular network technology (3G, 4G, LTE), televisions, and radio are possible because of satellites. For that reason, if these satellites were destroyed, GPS systems, phone calls, text messages, and televisions would no longer exist. As a result, people would be unable to communicate with each other, and many industries would stagnate.

Besides functioning satellites, another concern that orbital debris creates is humans’ ability to sustain their life on Earth. (fix this) According to Boyle, approximately 723,367 asteroids are wandering in the solar system, as astronomers continue to detect more of them. More importantly, scientists believe 90 percent of those asteroids could bring extinctions if they fell down on Earth (Boyle). Humans are not “masters?” of the universe. (In fact, we are tiny creatures living on a giant planet with millions of other giant things flying around us)fix this. Therefore, to be able to sustain life for humankind in a long term, we need to know what is happening in the universe. As an illustration, NASA is sending its spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx to study an asteroid in order to make a plan to defend the Earth against potential collision in the future. If space exploration became impossible, humankind would be clueless about these nearby asteroids that may come to Earth anytime and destroy life. 65 million years ago, dinosaurs went extinct after asteroids hit the damn land. Tragedy has happened once, and it may happen anytime again.

From an economic perspective, the space industry has greatly contributed to the creation of jobs globally. According to Grossbart, “Not only are space scientists studying astronomy, physics and cosmology, but space scientists also draw from the ranks of engineers, mathematicians, and information technologists because of the many different types of information needed to study the entirety of the universe.” If Low Earth Orbit became impenetrable, fewer projects will be planned as the demand for these jobs will decrease. Charles Bolden – former NASA administrator suggests on his blog post about the Curiosity Mars rover project, “It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states.” Additionally, the satellite industry will also be seriously hurt if space became unusable.

In conclusion, orbital debris is a big problem that scientists, space agencies, and satellite operators are facing. More importantly, it should be considered a priority concern for people from all other fields as they can directly affect them in the near future. As Stuart Clark said, space is big and seemingly endless, but it only is if you consider the universe, because space around Earth is limited and people are filling it with “garbage” from Earth everyday.

Works Cited

Acker, Olaf, et al. Why Satellites Matter. Booz & Company, Why Satellites Matter,
esoa.net/Resources/Why-Satellites-Matter-Full-Report.pdf.

Bolden, Charles. “Curiosity Takes Us Back to Mars.” NASA Blogs, NASA, 12 Sept. 2012,
blogs.nasa.gov/bolden/2012/09/12/post_1344232802884

“Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration.” NASA, International Space Exploration
Coordination Group, 2013,
nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/Benefits-Stemming-from-Space-Exploration-2013-TAGGED.pdf

Clark, Stuart. “How Dangerous Is Space Debris?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4
Oct. 2012, theguardian.com/science/across-the-universe/2012/oct/04/astronomy-space

Davey, Melissa. “’We’ve Left Junk Everywhere’: Why Space Pollution Could Be Humanity’s next
Big Problem.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Mar. 2017, theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/26/weve-left-junk-everywhere-why-space-pollution-could-be-humanitys-next-big-problem

Hill, Kyle. “Some Dead Satellites Refuse to Go Quietly to Their Graves – Facts So Romantic.”
Nautilus, NautilusThink Inc, 13 Nov. 2013, nautil.us/blog/some-dead-satellites-refuse-to-go-quietly-to-their-graves

Grossbart, Nancy. “Benefits of Space Exploration on Daily Life” Florida Tech ECurrent, Florida
Institute of Technology, 19 Feb. 2018, adastra.fit.edu/blog/floridatechbound/benefits-of-space-exploration

Henry, Caleb. “Space Debris Removal Startup Astroscale Raises $25 Million.” Engineering
Inspiration, Form and Content Media Limited, 14 July 2017, uclengins.org/external/space-debris-removal-startup-astroscale-raises-25-million/view

Larsen, Paul B. “Solving the Space Debris Crisis.” Journal of Air Law and Commerce,
no. Issue 3, 2018, p. 475. EBSCOhost, libproxy.unm.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshol&AN=edshol.hein.journals.jalc83.25&site=eds-live&scope=site

Mosher, Dave. “The US Government Logged 308,984 Potential Space-Junk Collisions in 2017 –
and the Problem Could Get Much Worse.” Business Insider, 15 Apr. 2018, businessinsider.com/space-junk-collision-statistics-government-tracking-2017-2018-4

“Multi-Stage and Clustered Rockets.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA,
explorersposts.grc.nasa.gov/post630/08-09 Files/Rocket Design Mission Discussion/Multi-Stage

“Rethinking Orbital Debris: More Space for Industry.” A. James Clark School of Engineering,
University of Maryland, 15 Nov. 2018, enme.umd.edu/news/story/rethinking-orbital-debris-more-space-for-industry

“Space Debris and Human Spacecraft.” Edited by Mark Garcia, NASA, 26 Sept. 2013, nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debris.html

Vandenberg, Dustin. “Space Debris: A Universal Problem.” Synapse, Boston University,
bu.edu/synapse/2012/10/26/space-debris-a-universal-problem

There have been several proposals to reduce or remove orbital debris. Mr. Okada is a Japanese former government official and internet entrepreneur (Fackler). His childhood passion for space as well as teenage experience at the United States Space Camp have motivated him to start Astroscale – a software company specializing in space debris removal projects (Fackler). Mr. Okada has created a two-step plan in the efforts to remove orbital debris (Fackler). The unique and interesting thing about his plan is he plans to make money from orbital debris removal. More specifically, his company plans to launch IDEA OSG 1 – a 50-pound satellite into the low Earth orbit (Fackler). Once in space, IDEA OSG 1 will monitor “sub-millimeter-sized” debris as well as access the risk of collisions (Henry). This project from Astroscale is significant considering as mentioned, debris travels at high speeds in which a tiny piece is enough to cause a major collision. In addition, small-sized debris are difficult to track from Earth. Therefore, IDEA OSG-1 will assist scientists, space agencies, and satellite operators in tracking these tiny pieces of debris in order to prevent collisions by selling “detailed maps of debris density” (Fackler) in the low Earth orbit. As Kevin O’Connell – the director of U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce, said, ““A key approach to dealing with space debris is to not create more debris” (“Rethinking Orbital Debris: More Space for Industry”) As Low Earth Orbit is becoming more packed overtime with satellites, spacecraft, and debris, it is crucial that humans should carefully track satellites and junks traveling around to prevent collisions as much as possible.

Orbital debris is not just anyone or any country’s problem. Instead, it is a global concern, drawing the attention of many scientists and space lovers from all around the world. Similar to Mr. Okada, Jason Held also has special love for space from a young age (Davey). Held is the leader of Saber Astronautics in Sydney where he has been working on technology that can help remove debris (Davey). Currently, he is working on a device called DragEN. Weighing approximately 0.2 pounds, DragEN is used to attach to spacecraft and satellites (Davey). Once the satellites complete their missions, DragEN will be activated to collect electric and magnetic forces when traveling through the earth’s magnetic field (Davey). Finally, according to Davey, “these forces will drag the satellite back towards Earth and into the atmosphere, where it will combust.” Held’s plan is considerably practical as satellites can take years to return to the Earth’s atmosphere with the pull of gravity (Davey). These are two of the most practical plans.

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