Long-feared space junk has become an imminent threat

 

Synopsis: With the increasing cost-effectiveness in rocket and satellite technologies, more countries and companies are planning more missions to orbit than ever before. This will ultimately result in more space debris that could trigger a mass collision in the future. This calls for countries and corporates to collaborate on the issue.

Introduction

In March, a Chinese military satellite collapsed in the orbit. It left a trail of debris high above the Earth. Yunhai 1-02, as the satellite is known, collided with a piece of junk leftover from a Russian rocket launched in 1996. It was the first major collision in Earth orbit since 2009. However, it won’t be the last.

What is space junk?

The dead and unwanted craft (rockets or satellites) left behind in the finite space of Earth orbit is referred to as space junk. As this junk increases, so would collisions; each collision would in turn produce debris that would make further collisions more likely. The result could be a belt of space junk so dense that it would make certain low-Earth orbits unusable. More than 100 million pieces of space junk are now orbiting the Earth.

Recent instances:  In 2007, China launched a ballistic missile at one of its old weather satellites, producing the largest cloud of space debris ever tracked. In 2009, a non-functional Russian communications orbiter collided with a functioning one operated by an Iridium Satellite, producing almost 2,000 pieces of debris measuring at least 4 inches in diameter.

What are the initiatives taken to manage space junk?

Firstly, in 1995, NASA issued the world’s first set of debris-mitigation guidelines. It proposed that satellites should be designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years of mission completion.

Secondly, other space-faring countries and the United Nations follow their own guidelines. But urgency and compliance were lacking, partly because the world had not yet experienced a destructive collision between spacecraft and debris.

Way forward:

Firstly, updating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the need of the hour. In particular, provisions that give countries permanent property rights to their objects in space may complicate efforts to clean up debris.

Secondly, there is a need for greater clarity on common issues, required to boost trust and cooperation.

Thirdly, NASA should fund research into debris-removal technologies—such as those recently demonstrated by Astroscale, a Japanese startup, which hold promise.

Finally, The US should also seek to expand the Artemis Accords, a framework for space cooperation that includes (so far) 11 other countries.

Source: This post is based on the article Long-feared space junk has become an imminent threat published in Mint on 3rd September 2021.

Terms to know: Artemis accord

 

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