Leslie in Year 11 discusses the increasing threat of junk in space orbit and therefore the significance of and urgency in removal of such junk, and whether a new experiment, led by the Surrey Space Centre, will provide a potential solution to the crowded orbit.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the rising interest in outer space has resulted in an uncountable amount of space debris. This under-reported phenomenon, also known as space junk or space waste, is the cluttering of the universe with man-made objects, and it has potentially dangerous consequences. But why should it capture people’s attention globally?
Hundreds and thousands of unused satellites from all over the world and fragments of spacecraft (including rocket stages and paint flakes) are in the same orbit, together with the functioning spacecraft. This is because many pieces of unwanted space debris take a long time, even decades, to deorbit and fall back into earth. Clearly, due to rising global interest in space exploration, the chances of collision are growing ever greater.
A report from the U.S. National Research Council in 2011 warned NASA that the ‘amount of orbiting space debris was at a critical level…enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures’. More than half a decade has passed since, and the removal of space debris definitely seems urgent.
A key solution to this issue is the removal of space waste from the atmosphere; this is important as even tiny particles of less than 1cm can have dramatic effects due to the high speed at which they travel and the risk of collisions. Perhaps surprisingly, these particles are a major threat to space walking astronauts and humans aboard spacecraft. Whilst it is important to acknowledge that collisions are unlikely due to space being unimaginably huge, the possible consequences could be dramatic, rendering it absolutely essential to diminish the growing threat posed by space debris.
To demonstrate this point, less than two years ago Sentinel-1A suffered an impact, where an object slammed into one of the solar panels and caused a dent of nearly half meter across. Had the main spacecraft been hit, it would have resulted in serious damage. Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre), stated, ‘We appear to have survived this unexpected collision with minimal impact on this particular satellite. We may not be so fortuitous next time.’
The leading astrophysics agencies’ announcements have emphasized the critical quantities of space debris and although space travel has always had risks, the rising amounts of space junk puts existing spacecraft under a continuous threat, especially as millions of small particles are untraceable. Encouraging further experiments focusing on the removal of them is necessary, as it is urgently important to come up with a solution and this is putting many space agencies under pressure to find the best solution to this ongoing problem.
The solution may be closer to home than we think! Not too far away from Wimbledon, the ongoing mission RemoveDebris at Surrey Space Centre aims to capture and destroy space debris in low cost initiatives, which will hopefully reduce the risk of future collisions. The experiment, planned to be launched this year, consists of four ways to capture space debris. If these methods turn out to be successful, it will be a step towards a safer orbit for the future. It includes: a net experiment, a VBN (Vision based navigation) experiment, a harpoon and deployable target experiment and a DragSail. The RemoveDebris will carry its own junk and measure the success of their methods in space.
The initial experiment involves capturing the debris by firing a net. When the CubeSat (which is released by RemoveDebris to try to capture the objects), is at a distance of 7m, the net will fire and hit the target. The large surface area enables the CubeSat to deorbit at an accelerated rate, which will hopefully remove the debris from space.
Airbus, an international aerospace company, is involved in a harpoon target experiment and many scientists believe that this could in fact provide the solution to space junk. In the RemoveDebris experiment, a small miniature harpoon is planned to be on board. A DragSail, also on board, is to quicken the de-orbit of the satellite when deployed and to speed up the rate of burning in the Earth’s atmosphere, explained by Surrey Space Centre.
The success of this experiment in removing space debris will lessen the risk of collision. It will create a safer environment for functioning satellites and any space vehicles, especially those with humans aboard. This is an absolutely necessary precaution to take before taking further steps in space exploration, and the success of this experiment will provide a new, innovative way to increase safety in outer space.
Despite this experiment providing hope for a better solution to the problem of space debris, how long it will take to make the orbit safe again is questionable and yet to be answered. Nevertheless, the many experiments being undertaken to help tackle this pressing problem provide some consolation. Although it seems like we are extremely far away from junk-free space, it might not be an impossibility.
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