Illustrated by Victoria Ellis/Axios
As close calls between satellites and orbital debris become more frequent, the US government is signaling that it’s time to take seriously the threat posed by space junk.
Important reasons: Thousands of space junk are orbiting Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour, threatening operational satellites and even people in orbit.
- “I think it’s quite possible that large parts of the universe will become unusable in the next few years,” Moriba Jah, co-founder of Privateer Space, told Axios.
News promotion: The White House released an implementation plan late last month detailing the steps the Biden administration would like to take to track, remediate and mitigate orbital debris, building on work begun by the previous administration. .
- The document is the culmination of months of interagency work to determine which part of the U.S. government is responsible for cleaning up space junk, tracking it, and researching ways to stop its creation. is showing.
- The program could lead to better characterization and tracking of today’s space debris, with research moving toward “improved characterization” of sub-centimeter debris in low-Earth orbit.
- The document could also reopen the debate about how long debris like the rocket body can stay in orbit. The current internationally adopted guideline that spent satellites and rocket bodies should be deorbited after 25 years has been cited in recent years as being too lax.
State of play: Experts say events such as the uncontrolled descent of a Chinese rocket body last month and fragments of a SpaceX capsule that ended up in Australia after re-entering the atmosphere could become more common in the future, along with collisions of orbiting satellites. I warn you that there is a risk.
- According to Luc Riesbeck of Astroscale US, there is already some evidence that the Kessler effect (the self-perpetuating phenomenon of debris generation from uncontrolled collisions of junk) is occurring in some orbits.
Big picture: Space junk cleanup is not just the responsibility of one country or one company to make it happen.
- Instead, much like fighting climate change, experts say many countries need to come together to establish norms and rules that actively target debris removal and mitigation. increase.
- “Space debris is an international issue, but the United States has the lead,” Ezinne Uzookoro, assistant director of space policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Axios.
Yes, but: Unlike Europe and Japan, the United States does not yet have its own decontamination mission. This is something that the implementation plan has not put directly into the pipeline.
- The regulatory framework around actually removing junk from the track is also complex.
- If one country cleans up the junk that another country created, it could set a precedent for one country to interfere with another country’s satellites in orbit. Removing space debris is also a matter of national pride.
- “For countries that are either less advanced in their space sector or otherwise having trouble in their space sector, it may look bad if they can’t even afford to remove the trash from orbit. Secure World Foundation said next said like this.
What to see: Congress will have to allocate the budget to implement many of the proposals presented in the White House plan.
- “I am pleased that key organizations have been identified next to each part of this implementation plan. It’s the responsibility of Congress to provide these organizations with accountability,” Jah says.