how serious is the problem

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The space race adds a new historical date, one of those that should be managed and, in its own way, mark a milestone: March 4, 2021. We do not set foot on any inhospitable planet, nor do we launch a new study instrument, such as the James Webb . The feat on this occasion was much less epic and much more embarrassing. For the first time since we have dedicated ourselves to exploring the universe, an out-of-control piece of garbage “made in Earth” of dubious origin hit the surface of the Moon. It did so without us sending it there or having any idea whether SpaceX, China, or some other corporation or country is responsible.

As far as is known, the impact – the fragment is believed to be the propellant of the spacecraft Chang’e 5-T1— does not jeopardize any ship or mission. In itself, it is not a tragedy. If it is alarming, it is because of its meaning: it shows us that space debris is a very real problem.

Neither new nor minor. That’s right, space debris is not a new or minor problem. Since the beginning of the space age, in the 1950s, we have put thousands of rockets and as many satellites. It is not easy to keep track. On February 3 alone, SpaceX launched 49 into low Earth orbit for its Starlink service, most of which were rendered useless shortly after by a geomagnetic storm.

We do, however, have some data that help us size up the problem. A report published two months ago by NASA shows that low Earth orbit —LEO, for its acronym in English – hosts at least 26,000 fragments equal to or larger than a baseball, large enough to destroy a satellite. Of the dimensions of a marble there would be more than 500,000 and more than 100 million similar to a grain of salt. It may seem like a minuscule size, but if one of them were to hit an astronaut’s suit it could puncture it and put it in serious trouble.

A graveyard of hardware above our heads. Data from the European Space Agency (ESA) help complete the picture. According to his estimates, there would be around 7,800 satellites in space, many of them inactive, and 36,500 pieces of space debris that exceed 10 centimeters. Of course, the four-tonne projectile of March 4 is not the first to leave its mark on the Moon. Over the past two decades, at least the LCROSS, LADEE or Smart-1. None of these cases can be compared to the one from a few weeks ago, a remnant that we did not send to the Moon and with no clear origin.

Controlled… but to a certain extent. Are those wastes monitored? Yes. Although not homogeneously. Much of the attention is focused on LEO, low Earth orbits, located at an altitude that does not usually exceed a thousand kilometers and are used, for example, for the ISS or satellite images. After decades of releases, NASA recognizes that the LEO region is today “a junkyard”, with millions of pieces of ships, fragments of paint, parts of rockets and satellites… It is estimated that in low Earth orbit there are about 6,000 tons of garbage. To keep an eye on its drift, they take care, for example, the firm LeoLabswith offices in Menlo Park, California, or the Center for Space Domain Awarenessknown as CSDA.

how to pick up Nature, the US Space Force is responsible for tracking objects to geostationary orbits, about 35,800 kilometers from Earth. The question is: What happens to the farthest garbage, closest to the Moon, located almost 400,000 km? The monitoring of these cases is in the hands of groups of researchers such as Vishnu Reddy, of the University of Arizona, which regularly tracks the position of more than a hundred and a half objects around the Moon, the vast majority of which are space debris. Astronomer Bill Gray, who discovered the rest that has ended up colliding with our natural satellite, points out in fact that there is no organization that is in charge as such of tracking the most distant objects in space.

The Increasing Number Of Space Objects By Type Pillars

Graph showing the increase of objects in space. PL usually corresponds to satellites launched by a rocket; PF, with payload fragmentation debris; PD with load residues; PM are the items linked to the quest; RB indicates the body of the rocket; RF fragmentation debris; RD rocket debris; RM related objects and UI are unidentified parts.

A system that can (and should) be polished. What just happened with the booster that hit the far side of the Moon is the best example that the system can improve. At first, years ago, Gray’s team concluded that it was a SpaceX rocket and later pointed to the Chinese mission. Chang’e 5-T1. The reality is that there are still doubts about the origin of the space debris that has left a new dent in our satellite.

It is not the only weak point of the system. Professor Don Pollacco, from the University of Warwick, recently explained to Science Focus that even in the closest region the effectiveness of the control is reduced when we talk about pieces of small dimensions. “Once you start to get below spacecraft size, then we don’t monitor things well enough to continually know what’s out there. The number of small things, even four inches in size, is not really known except through models.”

A lost rocket is going to crash on the Moon.  Looking for a responsible owner

And what happens to all that garbage? Although a good number of fragments end up burning when they fall into the atmosphere, the truth is that the garbage is already causing headaches for those responsible for space missions. Since 1999 the International Space Station (ISS) has had to do more than twenty maneuvers to avoid debris. In November was forced to do a similar operation to avoid remnants of a Chinese satellite. Around the same time, the station also saw how a Russian operation put it in danger.

Garbage and/or business? “In all the satellites, hundreds of maneuvers are carried out every year to avoid collisions”, MNH abounds. In recent times, both public bodies and the private sector, which has seen a good business opportunity, have been in charge of activating initiatives to try to alleviate the garbage that flies over us. There are control and monitoring programs, such as the US Space Surveillance Network, and missions that want to eliminate at least part of the waste, in the style of Clear-Space-1. In this effort, NASA or ESA are joined, among other companies, by Privateer, Astrocale, Airbus, ExoAnalytic or even SpaceX. Where most of us see garbage, a business is also opening that promises to mobilize large resources.

An “unsustainable” situation. “Imagine driving down a road where there are more broken down cars, bikes and vans than there are working vehicles. This is the scene facing our satellites in Earth orbit,” explains the ESA with a metaphor that clearly collects what space debris entails and what it can entail. And ditch: “Our current behavior in space is unsustainable. If we continue as we are, the number of objects in orbit will make safe operation in space difficult. The number of objects in space, including their combined mass and their combined area, is constantly increasing.”

Although the ESA reminds that most of the remains of rockets and high-altitude missions end up being eliminated without problem, emits some red lights: warns that behaviors in the lowest orbit “are not changing fast enough” and that, on average, there are 12.5 unplanned events that generate debris each year. The truth is that just a handful of crashes can lead to a big problem. NASA estimates that the destruction of the ship Fengyun-1C in 2007 and the accidental collision of a US and a Russian spacecraft in 2009 increased orbital debris in LEO by approximately 70%.

Space debris, danger and business: the private sector ranks sixth in the juicy race to control waste

And that extends to greater distances. Nor does it come that control efforts are limited to the lowest orbits. Alberto Águeda, from the GMV company, explained days ago to The country that so far what was recorded beyond the Moon “has not been perceived as a problem”. The scenario could change from now on with the increase in missions that target our natural satellite. Only this year they plan to get there half a dozen ships.

At closer heights we face the challenge of increasing satellites. NASA itself has acknowledged its concern about SpaceX’s plans, embarking on the process of deploying a huge artificial constellation for its satellite Internet system. Elon Musk’s firm has already received permission to deploy 12,000, but has requested authorization to add 30,000.

What are we doing to avoid it? Beyond the initiatives to monitor space debris or directly eliminate it, over the last few years there have been some initiatives that seek to imprint a certain order and coordination on the generation of space debris. In 2002 for example the Interagency Waste Coordination Committee (IADC) published guidelines for “space debris mitigation”, a sort of basis for establishing legislation and technical standards. The measures include a commitment that the ships do not keep explosive fuel on board after their missions, carry out maneuvers to avoid collisions or the requirement that ships in low Earth orbit must retire after 25 years.

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The space race adds a new historical date, one of those that should be managed and, in its own way,…

The space race adds a new historical date, one of those that should be managed and, in its own way,…

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