Darren McKnight: The problem isn’t commercial mega-constellations, it’s the inability to deal with existing debris
WASHINGTON — The United States is a space powerhouse, but it’s not doing as much as other nations to solve its orbital debris problem, industry experts said Jan. 6.
Darren McKnight, Senior Technical Fellow at LeoLabs and member of the International Space Academy’s Space Debris Committee, said the U.S. Space Force’s funding of debris removal technology is laudable, but it poses a serious threat to space. He said it wasn’t enough to deal with what was becoming. work.
LeoLabs is a private company based in California that uses ground radar to monitor low earth orbit.
“I love the fact that the Space Force said, ‘Yes, we are concerned about picking up debris.’ I will tell you.
Unlike other countries, the United States is approaching the debris problem as a long-term problem, decades ahead, he said. In fact, the risk of satellites colliding with debris, and even more debris-on-debris collisions that create more space junk, is rising rapidly, quickly impacting the industry’s ability to operate satellites reliably. may begin to give
“It’s embarrassing to me to hear people talk about the need for proactive debris removal and the need for debris settlement like it was decades ago,” McKnight said. I’m here. “The European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency are far ahead of this kind of thing.”
The European Space Agency has awarded ClearSpace a $104 million contract to begin a mission to remove debris objects from orbit in 2025. A step that paves the way for a debris removal mission. Astroscale has also signed a contract with New Zealand to study advanced concepts for orbital debris removal. He also won a contract from the British Space Agency to study the removal of two defunct satellites from low Earth orbit by 2025.
“It’s not something these companies are doing in the US right now because it’s seen as something we can worry about decades from now. We need to worry about it now.” said McKnight.
Active satellites that are not of primary concern
In the United States, the focus of space traffic management is on operating satellites and keeping them from colliding with each other or being hit by debris, McKnight said. However, not enough attention has been paid to debris management, he added.
A dead payload, an abandoned rocket body, or a piece of debris is flying out of control and likely to collide, McKnight said. “His two-thirds of the debris that can occur in low-Earth orbit does not come from space traffic management. It comes from avoiding crashing into things.”
In some cases, he said, fixing doesn’t mean deleting, but making it non-conflicting. Some of the rockets that orbit the Earth are huge, weighing about 9,000 kilograms. “It’s a big yellow school bus with no brakes and no driver,” McKnight says. “Right now, he doesn’t have a single company planning to dismantle a 9,000-kilogram object.” The option in this case is to “tweak it out of the way.”
Some of the most terrifying altitudes in low Earth orbit are 750-850 kilometers, with numerous dead Russian, Chinese and US satellites abandoned over decades. “This is a uniquely ironic collaboration by his three major spaceflight nations to try to reach this altitude significantly,” McKnight said. All three nations “have done an excellent job working together to wreck a very important part of low Earth orbit”.
Another problematic altitude is 1,400 to 1,500 kilometers, where there is not enough air resistance to bring the debris down. At 500-600 kilometers, air resistance will wash away the debris, even if it takes 10-20 years. “At 1,400 kilometers, it’s been around for centuries.”
When talking about the potentially catastrophic effects of debris, people think of the Kessler syndrome, or the cascade of collisions at LEO caused by debris density. That could lead to the future, he said, McKnight. “Catastrophe is when it starts to affect industry revenues and people have to change where they put their satellites.And we are not far from that.”
Commercial mega-constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb have been criticized for exacerbating LEO congestion, McKnight said, but these companies should be seen as increasingly vulnerable victims. said. “Old abandoned gigantic objects pose a greater risk than smaller, more agile constellations,” he added. We are working on mitigation guidelines and operational procedures.They are safer than what the government wants them to be.But we may face difficult times in the near future because of debris.”
The US Space Force currently tracks about 35,000 debris objects, 70% of which are in low earth orbit. LeoLabs tracks objects the size of a softball or larger. McKnight said there are between 500,000 and 900,000 small items currently untracked, and he said, “Cross your fingers and hope you don’t get hit.”