Houston, we’ve got a problem
How technology is helping to tackle space debris
According to the 2022 European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) space environment report, more than 30,000 pieces of space debris have been spotted and tracked by space surveillance networks in Earth’s orbital environment. This has increased by around 3,000 since 2021 reports by the US Department of Defense, proving that this problem is only increasing. Space debris is so prevalent, even if we stopped space travel and sent up satellites today, the Earth would still become enclosed under a layer of junk in the future, meaning a solution is required. In this article, Aleiya Lonsdale, head of event at Advanced Engineering UK, discusses the various technological solutions developed to tackle the growing amount of space debris.
Space debris, orbital debris or space junk all refer to the build-up of fragmenting waste from defunct satellites, boosters and spacecraft parts in low Earth orbit. These fragments stay in the Earth’s orbit, travelling at high speeds that inevitably collide with more satellites, boosters and spacecraft, creating more debris with each orbit of the Earth.
NASA has approximately 23,000 pieces of space debris, larger than a softball, currently orbiting the Earth. These chunks of space junk can orbit at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, making them very deadly projectiles that could destroy satellites on impact. For example, in 2019, India blew apart one of its satellites orbiting Earth, creating hundreds of pieces of debris that pose a threat to the International Space Station.
As these larger pieces collide and decay as they orbit Earth, they create smaller-sized debris that can penetrate protective systems and critical infrastructures such as fuel tanks and cabins. Think of space debris almost like the hydra from Greek mythology — for every head chopped off, two grow in its place. Essentially for every piece of space debris that collides or decays, smaller debris takes its place. NASA reports that even grain-sized debris can penetrate fuel tanks, erode surface materials, crack windows and puncture spacesuits, increasing the risk of collisions of spacecraft and crew, forming a never-ending cycle of destruction and waste circling our planet.
Although space debris causes increasing dangers for space travel, it also poses a threat to GPS systems, telecommunications, weather forecasting and almost all other systems that use satellites. With the building concern over space debris, it is now seen as less of a space travel issue and more of a sustainability issue, so while we attempt to clean our seas and lands of waste, we should also be seeking solutions to clear space.
Out of this world
Sadly, clearing Debris isn’t as simple as it would be on Earth. However, there are a variety of technologies being developed that could help.
One of these solutions comes from engineers at Purdue University, in the form of a drag sail. The drag sail, coined Spinnaker3, has been developed to help deorbit itself and the vehicle attached, as required by US law. US law stipulates that space vehicles are required to deorbit within 25 years of terminating operations. The Spinnaker3 was invented to be better at deorbiting than the current method of thruster systems, since these systems require additional fuel for the course change, which in turn increases the vehicle’s mass, raises costs and reduces the vehicle’s capabilities.
The Spinnaker3 comprises of four carbon-fibre booms, each three meters long, that unfurl from the exterior of the vehicle’s upper stage, creating a 194-square-foot sail made from fluorinated polyimide. This drag sail solution is said to decrease the vehicle’s deorbit process from 25 days to 15 days, this faster deorbiting helps decrease the chances of a spacecraft turning into space debris.
The Spinnaker3 is not the only solution that has been invented. Companies such as OrbitGuardians and ClearSpace are bringing alternate solutions to the table. OrbitGuardians, a US-based start-up is providing active debris removal (ADR) services using technologies such as computer vision, Internet of Things and artificial intelligence (AI) for low-cost space debris removal. This method uses these technologies to obtain debris parameters and eliminate potentially dangerous targets. However, low-cost ADR only clears debris that is smaller than 20 centimetres. Despite this limitation, it is still a useful method and clears up the harder-to-deorbit debris that causes damage to fuel tanks, windows and more.
ClearSpace, a spin-off of Swiss EPFL Space Centre, uses what could be described as a giant claw machine. This giant claw is housed in a small satellite solution, called ClearSpace One, which identifies, captures and removes man-made space debris. Its giant four-armed claw grabs the debris and sends it into a lower orbit, where it will burn on entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
These are just a few of the solutions being developed to solve this growing issue and while some of these solutions have yet to be launched into space, they show promise for the future. To reduce space debris and keep the low-Earth orbit vacant collaborative efforts are required across all countries to prevent further debris from forming. Other technologies being used to further innovation in space can be found at Advanced Engineering UK, which is held at the NEC, Birmingham on November 2 and 3 2022. To register as a visitor, click here.
Easyfairs organises and hosts events, bringing communities together to visit the future.
We currently organise 200 face-to-face events in 14 countries (Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) and manage eight event venues in Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden (Antwerp, Ghent, Mechelen-Brussels North, Namur, Gorinchem, Hardenberg, Malmö and Stockholm).
We are passionate about “easifying” the life of our customers and increasing the return on investment and return on time for professional communities through our all-in formulas, advanced technology and customer-centric approach. Our digital features and initiatives provide these communities with excellent opportunities to network effectively and do business throughout the year. We listen carefully to create compelling online formats that meet their constantly evolving needs.
The Easyfairs Group employs 700 highly committed talents, deploys the best marketing and technology tools, and develops brands with a strong appeal to our stakeholder communities.
In 2018 Easyfairs was named Belgium’s “Entrepreneur of the Year®” and a “Great Place to Work”. For the fourth year running, Deloitte conferred “Best Managed Company” status on Easyfairs in 2022.
The company is ranked 17th in the list of the world’s leading exhibition companies.
Visit the future with Easyfairs and find out more on www.easyfairs.com.
For further information, please contact:
Advanced Engineering, email@example.com
Jessica Phillips, Stone Junction Ltd, firstname.lastname@example.org