Space junk crisis: Chris Hadfield's urgent plea for global cooperation

10 minute read

Space junk crisis: Chris Hadfield's urgent plea for global cooperation

BRATISLAVA/YEREVAN, MAY 29, ARMENPRESS. Since the dawn of the human space era in the mid-20th century, we have launched thousands of rockets and even more satellites into space. The roles and importance of these satellites have evolved significantly. Initially, they were primarily for scientific research, but later satellites have been used for telecommunications, navigation, weather forecasting, espionage, and military applications. Many of these satellites are now defunct and have become space debris, still orbiting Earth.

Driven by an insatiable desire to explore space, humanity has cluttered Earth's orbit over the past 70 years. The European Space Agency reports that since 1957, 16,990 satellites have been launched, with 11,500 still in space. Some of these satellites have collided, breaking into thousands of fragments and increasing space debris. As of December 2023, the agency notes there are 36,500 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm, 1 million between 1-10 cm, and 130 million between 1 mm and 1 cm. These fragments travel at speeds up to 29,000 kilometers per hour, about seven times the speed of a bullet.

The vast amount of space debris poses a serious safety threat for the people both on Earth and in Space. Even a millimeter-sized fragment traveling at high speed could damage the International Space Station (ISS) and endanger its crew. SpaceX, an American company, reported that its Starlink satellites had to perform 25,000 collision-avoidance maneuvers in the past six months. The company estimates that if the current trend continues, by 2028, Starlink satellites will need to maneuver 1 million times in a six-month period.

At the STARMUS festival in Bratislava, Canadian retired astronaut and engineer Chris Hadfield discussed space debris and efforts to mitigate it. Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the ISS and the first Canadian to walk in space, recounted how space debris once struck and damaged the ISS’s glass. A slightly stronger impact could have been fatal for the crew. Hadfield dedicated his speech to addressing this issue and exploring potential solutions.

ARMENPRESS highlights key parts of his speech.

How did we accumulate so much space junk?

If you look at all the history of the world, for the first 4.5 billion years we didn’t have any space junk. We hadn’t put anything in orbit. But just a couple of years before I was born we figured out how to launch a rocket into Space. And what it carried into space in October of 1957 was a thing little smaller than a basketball; it weighed about the same as I weigh, and we decided to call it Sputnik – little traveler, foreign voyager. Sputnik changed everything; it began orbital debris, it began space junk. It only stayed in orbit for about 3 months before its orbit decayed and it burned up in the atmosphere. But we said, wow, if we could put Sputnik up there, then we could put communication satellites up, and weather satellites, and spy satellites, and navigation and all kinds of staff. Maybe even people out there. So since 1957 we’ve put a lot of staff in orbit around the world.

Over the last couple of years, we've had a big increase because the cost of rockets has got to be cheaper. And so SpaceX is putting up thousands of communication sattelites to get everybody in the world to have internet and be able to use cell phones. So we’ve put a lot more staff out there. And it’s not just that we’ve put it there, sometimes they run into each other. In 2009, two old satlleties crashed into each other and they turned 2 satellites into 2 thousand pieces of debris, some of which are still there right now.

And then some of the bigger governments said – what if we want to shoot an enemy satellite down like we shoot down their drowns or we shoot down their airplanes? We call them anti-satellite weapons. The Soviet Union started that in 70s, and then the Americans in the 80s and 2000s, and the Chinese launched one, and the Indians launched one, and the Russians launched one. And the trouble is that the anti-satellite weapon turns one satellite into thousands of pieces.

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So how big of a threat is space junk and what can we do about it?

If you live on board a Space Station like I had a chance to, you don’t want a piece of debris to come through the wall. Eventually a piece of debris will kill everybody on the Space Station. So the real question is how soon, how can we predict it, what can we do about the problem?

Interestingly, last summer was the busiest airplane traffic day in history. On that one day last July, 135,000 airplanes flew in our atmosphere. There’s only 86,000 seconds in a day. So that means there was more than one airplane taking off almost every second. And yet none of them ran into each other. And the reason they didn’t run into each other, despite there being almost 135,000 flights, is because we designed them to be safe. We planned their flights, we can track where they’re going, we have good tracking systems, and if they are going to run into something else, they can maneuver and they have a planned landing. So how can we take those ideas and apply it to orbital debris?

How to collect space junk?

So one of the ideas is let’s go and clean up the big pieces, like pieces of rockets so that they don’t crash into each other. Our company, called Astroscale, actually launched and flew right up close to these pieces of space junk, like a big piece the size of a rocket. And all it did was to show that the spaceship works, but next time they’re going to try and go out and actually grab it. But how do you even grab junk pieces out there?

You might use something like a big grabber, or some floks are designing something like a harpoon; some are building nets. There're bunch of ideas. But we need to do that so that our big things do not crash into each other and creat thousands and thousands of other pieces. But what would you do about all the little pieces? Cause you can’t launch spaceships to pick up ten thousand things that are the size of your fist.

So one of the leading ideas is we build one of these big lasers on the world and actually fire ot, very carefully steering it to correct the debris's orbit. You line it up perfectly so that it hits the front of the little piece going through space and vapourazies it.

And if you build some of these around the world where not a lot of people are working or where there's not a lot of air traffic and just let them run 24 hours a day/7 days a week, then we can slowly and delibereteley start cleaning up the mass that we've created up there.

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Creating responsible structures

We know how to do this; this is just expensive. Somebody is going to pay for it, and regulation is another big piece of that. How can we shift someone to become responsible for that? Well, you can take an existing organization, like NACA became NASA. It used to be The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, just for airplanes. But in 1958, right after Spuntik, the US government said, "Holy crap, we need someone not just for Aeronautics but for Space," so they changed the acronym and announced The National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And suddenly its responsibilities changed.

And the people that allow us to have safe commercial aviation used to be ICAN - The International Commission for Air Navigation. And that grew and became what is now the International Civil Aviation Organization. And they do a great job; I mean, 135 000 planes in a day, and it works for the UN. We can change its name for the International Civil Aerospace Organization. We need more funding, we need more responsibilities.

And we need our policymakers to address some of the other problems, like controlling who launches. Nobody should go into Space without a launch license, just like nobody gets to fly a commercial airplane without a license. It has to meet all the safety criteria.

Araks Kasyan

Photo Credit: Max Alexander/Starmus


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