What Is… Space Debris?
What is Space Debris?
Often referred to as ‘space junk’, space debris is any man-made object in Earth’s orbit that no longer serves a purpose. It includes items like disused spacecraft, inactive satellites, fragments from explosions and collisions, launch canisters, and mission-related objects.
As of April 2022, the European Space Agency reported over 30,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm. Some notable ones have included:
- A Tesla Roadster (launched in 2018 by Elon Musk to the tune of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Track its journey here)
- A $100,000 bag of tools (dropped by astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper on a spacewalk)
- A glove
- A tank of ammonia
- A spatula
- A camera
What is Causing Space Debris?
Space debris is caused by a combination of factors including anti-satellite weapons, collisions, rocket stages, explosions in orbit caused by leftover fuel and batteries, and human activity.
In addition, not enough satellites are being removed from highly crowded low-Earth orbits at the end of their mission lifecycles. Active satellites have to actively dodge fragments of objects launched into space years ago.
The United Nations requests for satellites to be removed from orbit within 25 years of the end of their lives. For some, this means pulling them into a ‘graveyard orbit’ where it won’t pose a threat to active satellites.
How Much Space Junk is There?
Amongst the 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth, there are 3,000 dead ones. On top of this, there are around 900,000 pieces of debris ranging from the size of a marble to a tennis ball, around 34,000 pieces above 10cm, and 128 million pieces below 1cm. The total mass of debris in Earth’s orbit is estimated to exceed 9,000 metric tons.
While a few millimetres of space junk may seem insignificant, even the smallest piece can cause serious damage. When the 1983 Challenger Space Shuttle collided with a 0.2mm speck of paint at 20,000mph, it dug a significant chunk out of its window. Even this miniscule piece of space debris could have compromised a multi-billion-dollar mission.
Why is Space Debris a Problem?
Space junk poses a threat to human spaceflight and robotic missions. The debris also threatens our weather forecasting, GPS and telecommunications systems.
Collisions with debris have already caused significant damage to the International Space Station, as well as other vital satellites. With more launch activity taking place than ever before – over 4850 reported in January 2022 – the probability of collisions is rising.
In 2007, the probability of any satellite in low Earth orbit colliding with a piece of debris over 1cm was 17-20% in a year. Later that year, this increased to 25-33% when China completed an anti-satellite mission, deliberately destroying their 750kg Fengyun-1C weather satellite and creating over 3,000 pieces of debris. By 2010, the likelihood rose to 50% when two full-sizes satellites, Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2252, collided at 42,000kmph. The crash annihilated both satellites, sending over 1000 fragments over 10cm, and many more too small to track, flying into space.
In addition to causing issues in outer space, debris can pose a physical threat to us back on Earth. China made headlines recently when a 25-ton chunk of debris from their Long March 5B rocket began hurtling back down to Earth. Space junk from the uncontrolled return was later found in Indonesia and Malaysia. Even more recently, chunks of debris from SpaceX’s Dragon capsule were found scattered across Australian farmland.
Can We Clear Space Junk?
Space junk can stay in Earth’s orbit for thousands of years, if not longer. With the problem at hand getting worse, experts have been deliberating on ways to clean up space.
In March 2021, private orbital debris removal company Astroscale launched its End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) satellite. It consists of two spacecraft – a 175kg chaser and a 17kg target. Using magnets, ELSA-d will capture orbiting junk and pull it out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere. This innovative craft was awarded the 2021 Satellite Technology of the Year Award. In its test phase, both spacecraft were sent into space to later separate and engage in a cosmic game of cat and mouse. Once in orbit, the target is ejected for the chaser to locate using its sensors. Once tracked, the chaser meets the target and launches onto it using a magnetic docking place. After securing, the target is released for further capture tests.
Astroscale reported ELSA-d’s success in August 2021, giving new hope that the spacecraft will be able to complete this same process to capture pieces of debris.
Many other posed solutions are still in their research phases. The US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency has been investigating a ‘space garbage truck’ equipped with 200 giant nets to catch orbiting debris. The collected junk would either be dragged into lower orbit or brought back to land in the ocean.
Another developing idea is the Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device, or GOLD system. This would employ a balloon thinner than a plastic sandwich bag, using gas to inflate it to the size of a football pitch. The balloon would then attach itself to large pieces of debris and eventually drag them into the atmosphere to burn up. If successful, this system could speed objects’ re-entry from hundreds of years to only a few months.
Whichever of these innovative methods gets the go-ahead, one thing is clear – and it’s definitely not space. With the sheer mass of junk orbiting Earth, we need to come up with an effective solution, and fast.
The space sector has come a long way, but our venture beyond the stars has only just begun. The sector will transform our lives in ways we never thought possible, but for the industry to thrive, humanity needs to clean up its act.
Working With Space Debris
The field of space debris offers a variety of career paths for individuals with a passion for space and an interest in preserving it for future generations. From scientists and engineers who develop new technologies to track and mitigate space debris, to policy makers and managers who create regulations and oversee programs, there is a role for every skill set.
- Space debris engineer: developing and implementing strategies and technologies to minimize the creation of space debris and manage the existing debris population.
- Space debris analyst: analyzing data and monitoring the distribution of space debris in Earth’s orbit to predict collisions and assess risks to active satellites and spacecraft.
- Space Situational Awareness (SSA) specialist: maintaining a comprehensive picture of objects in space, including space debris, to support the protection of space assets.
- Spacecraft operations engineer: overseeing operational aspects of spacecraft, including flight paths, and ensuring protection from space debris.
- Aerospace engineer: designing, testing, and evaluating performance of spacecraft and associated systems, and developing debris removal or avoidance technologies.
- Space policy analyst: researching and analyzing space policies, laws, and regulations related to space debris and advising on addressing the issue.
- Space lawyer: providing legal advice and support on issues related to space debris, including liability, compensation, and international agreements and treaties.
Space Debris Salary Guidelines
- Space debris engineer – $81,000
- Space Situational Awareness (SSA) specialist – $137,500
- Spacecraft operations engineer – $112,422
- Aerospace engineer – $97,102
- Policy analyst – $74,678
- Space lawyer – $114,834
Geographic Hotspots for a Career with Space Debris
- Washington DC-Baltimore
- Los Angeles
Whether you’re a space enthusiast, a technical expert, or a business professional, there is a career path in space debris management that can align with your interests and skills. With the continued growth of space exploration and commercialization, the demand for professionals in this field is only expected to increase, making it an exciting and rewarding industry to pursue.
Check out our space jobs page to discover the incredible careers like this the space sector.
What Is… Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)?Explore the capabilities and applications of Synthetic Aperture Radar in the space sector.Read More
What Is… a Nano Satellite?Explore the mini revolution of nano satellites and their impact on the space industry. Get insights on their size, functions, and potential future uses.Read More
What Is… Space Debris?Understand the issue of space debris and its impact on space missions. Get informed about the ongoing efforts to clean up space.Read More