Dealing with space junk

O-Train end station, Ottawa

Junk in space is an increasingly severe problem, as both the quantity of useless debris and the number of useful satellites increases. Aside from international censure, there isn’t especially much that can be done at present to punish those who make the problem worse, as China did when they blew up one of their satellites in 2007.

A good international approach to mitigating the problem might resemble the following: an international agreement among space-faring states to avoid the production of such debris, coupled with a penalty system for situations in which it occurs. The money from the fines could be put into an insurance fund. Then, when collisions take place between unmanned satellites or manned space vehicles, some level of compensation could be paid out of that fund.

Setting up such a system would require the support and goodwill of quite a number of states. Nonetheless, it might help make the regions of space closest to our planet somewhat more orderly and well-governed.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

25 thoughts on “Dealing with space junk”

  1. Debris in space
    Flying blind

    Feb 19th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    The tragedy of the commons meets the final frontier

    THE Earth’s orbit is getting crowded. The past few years have witnessed huge growth in the number of satellites. Unfortunately, wherever civilisation ventures it leaves a trail of rubbish. Of the 18,000 tracked objects travelling around the Earth that are larger than 10cm (4 inches), only about 900 are active satellites. The rest is debris—everything from fragments of paint to entire dead satellites and bits of old rockets. Smashed bits of space equipment orbit along with items dropped by astronauts, including tools and the odd glove.

    That is quite enough trash, without needlessly creating vastly more of the stuff by smashing up satellites. Yet the destruction of the Chinese Fengyun-1C in an anti-satellite missile test in 2007 accounts for more than a quarter of all catalogued objects in low-Earth orbit. And the collision of an American commercial satellite and a defunct Russian military one has just added thousands more pieces of debris. For the sake of the whole planet, the space industry needs to clean up its act.

  2. Kessler Syndrome
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Kessler Syndrome is a scenario, proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in a 1978 publication, where the volume of space debris in Low Earth orbit is so high that objects in orbit are frequently struck by debris, creating even more debris and a greater risk of further impacts. The implication of this scenario is that the escalating amount of debris in orbit could eventually render space exploration, and even the use of satellites, unfeasible for many generations. Donald J. Kessler and Burton G. Cour-Palais (June 1, 1978). “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt”. Journal of Geophysical Research 83 (A6): 2637-2646.

  3. Could star-wars help deal with the space-junk problem, if we were able to invent anti-matter cannons?

  4. Harry Potter-style magic wands would also be helpful: accio satellite debris!

    More seriously, we can only produce tiny amount of antimatter, at huge expense. Also, using antimatter to nullify materials weighing several kilograms would produce devastating amounts of energy. Every gram of mass you eliminated would release 89.9 terajoules of energy (21.5 kilotons of TNT-equivalent energy, similar to the Nagasaki bomb).

    Just the Chinese ASAT test produced “more than 2300 pieces (updated 12/13/07) of trackable debris (approximately golf ball size or larger), over 35,000 pieces 1 cm or larger, and 1 million pieces 1 mm or larger.”

  5. Antimatter
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


    “Antimatter is said to be the most costly substance in existence, with an estimated cost of $62.5 trillion per milligram. This is because production is difficult (only a few atoms are produced in reactions in particle accelerators), and because there is higher demand for the other uses of particle accelerators. According to CERN, it has cost a few hundred million Swiss Francs to produce about 1 billionth of a gram.

    Several NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts-funded studies are exploring whether it might be possible to use magnetic scoops to collect the antimatter that occurs naturally in the Van Allen belts of Earth, and ultimately, the belts of gas giants like Jupiter, hopefully at a lower cost per gram.”

    “The current antimatter production rate is between 1 and 10 nanograms per year, and this is expected to increase to between 3 and 30 nanograms per year by 2015 or 2020 with new superconducting linear accelerator facilities at CERN and Fermilab. Some researchers claim that with current technology, it is possible to obtain antimatter for US$25 million per gram by optimizing the collision and collection parameters (given current electricity generation costs). Antimatter production costs, in mass production, are almost linearly tied in with electricity costs, so economical pure-antimatter thrust applications are unlikely to come online without the advent of such technologies as deuterium-tritium fusion power (assuming that such a power source actually would prove to be cheap).”

  6. Another useful policy would be requiring that all satellites have the means to push themselves out of orbit once their useful lives are over – or, in the case of geostationary satellites, at least into a graveyard orbit.

    That would reduce the likelihood of collisions, and diminish the probability of Kessler Syndrome taking hold.

  7. Milan, isn’t this blog post entirely a cut-down version of the economist article? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a post of yours with less input from you. Sorry if this sounds catty. Want comment to reach you but perhaps delete at screening?

  8. Oddly, I had already written this piece when I came across the Economist article. It was prompted by the earlier news stories about the satellite collision.

    Clearly, hundreds of issues of The Economist has made me think like them, in some respects.

  9. In retrospect, it really isn’t surprising that The Economist and I leapt to similar prescriptions for the problem of space junk.

    Global common property failure? Solution espoused by market liberals: an international agreement, incorporating financial incentives. Whether it’s acid rain, climate change, or overfishing, the basic template of the response is similar.

  10. A Cosmic Question: How to Get Rid Of All That Orbiting Space Junk?
    Crash of U.S., Russian Craft Renews Interest; Lasers? Rocket-Powered Water Guns?

    In the 1980s, Jim Hollopeter helped design rockets that shot into orbit. Today, some of those launchers are still cluttering up space, and he wants to wash them away with a rocket-powered water gun.

    Like many aerospace engineers, Mr. Hollopeter is worried about thousands of pieces of useless equipment circling Earth. Bits of spent rocket boosters, old exploded satellites and tools dropped by space-walking astronauts are just some of the trash racing along in the near-vacuum of space.

    The volume of man-made space debris has grown so large that scientists say garbage now poses a bigger safety threat to the U.S. space shuttle than an accident on liftoff or landing. The International Space Station occasionally fires thrusters to dodge junk.

  11. March 12th, 2009
    ISS Crew May Need to Evacuate: Possible Debris Hit

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    According to, the three crew members on board the International Space Station are being prepared for the contingency of evacuation into the Soyuz spacecraft attached to the station following a “RED threshold late notice conjunction threat” alert. The object’s closest approach would occur at 11:39 CDT, slightly more than an hour from the time of this posting. The object, cataloged as “25090 PAM-D” is orbital debris, and was initially classed as a low threat of collision with the ISS. However, latest tracking suggests the threat is now greater. As a contingency, NASA’s Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke, Russian Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov, and NASA’s Sandra Magnus may be asked to evacuate into the Russian Soyuz, which would serve as their means of departing from the Station – should it be required.

    Several memos acquired by relay the probability level of the impact, with the latest noting “It’s now in the red threshold and if it doesn’t improve between now and TCA (Time of Closest Approach) at 11:39am CDT today they will put the crew in the Soyuz per the rules.”

  12. Published online 15 April 2009 | Nature 458, 814 (2009) | doi:10.1038/458814b

    Collision debris increases risk to Earth-observing satellites

    European study finds wreckage from recent collision in the spaceways.

    Geoff Brumfiel

    The collision of two communications satellites on 10 February has significantly increased the risk to Europe’s Earth-observing programme.

    The European Space Agency’s ERS-2 and Envisat missions are 30% more likely to face a catastrophic impact from space debris in the wake of the collision, according to Heiner Klinkrad, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany. The absolute risk remains small, but there were seven ‘near misses’ last year in which objects passed within 200 metres of the satellites. The satellites provide a range of environmental data, including in the case of Envisat some measurements of carbon-dioxide levels similar to, although less precise than, those that were expected from NASA’s lost Orbiting Carbon Observatory (see ‘NASA ponders ‘carbon copy’ of crashed mission’).

  13. Lunar Leftovers: How the Moon Became a Trash Can

    by R J Evans, May 9, 2009
    We hear about the amount of waste floating around space all the time. However, the biggest trash can outside of earth’s atmosphere is in fact the moon.

    The moon has only been accessible for decades, rather than hundreds of years. However, in the short time available to humanity it is estimated that we have left over one hundred and seventy thousand kilos of debris on the surface of our once pristine satellite. Here are some of the more notable pieces of trash on the moon.

  14. Tiny cube to tackle space debris
    By Jonathan Amos
    Science correspondent, BBC News

    UK researchers have developed a device to drag space debris out of orbit.

    They plan to launch a demonstration of their “CubeSail” next year. It is a small satellite cube that deploys a thin, 25-sq-m plastic sheet.

    Residual air molecules still present in the spacecraft’s low-Earth orbit will catch the sheet and pull the object out of the sky much faster than is normal.

    The Surrey Space Centre team says the concept could be fitted to larger satellites and even rocket stages.

    The group also envisions that a mature system would even be sent to rendezvous and dock with redundant spacecraft to clean them from orbit.

    “Our system is simple and very low cost; but we need to demonstrate that it can be done,” said Dr Vaios Lappas, lead researcher on the project and senior lecturer in space vehicle control.

    “It would help make space a sustainable business. We want to be able to keep on launching satellites to provide new services; but unless we do something, the amount of junk up there is going to grow exponentially.”

  15. The problem of orbiting debris
    Clunkers in space
    What can be done about the dangerous junk that litters space?

    Aug 19th 2010

    Two things need to be done. One is to stop creating more junk by building better controlled self-destruction into satellites. Technologically this is not difficult. It means reserving some of a satellite’s precious fuel for the end of its life to slow it down, so that it burns up in the atmosphere or falls into the sea. Satellite owners resist this because they want to use fuel for more valuable things: a satellite that cannot manoeuvre is more or less useless. A deposit payable on launch, to be refunded when a satellite is disposed of safely, could deal with this by giving value to that last, self-sacrificial rocket blast.

    The second task, cleaning up the junk that is already up there, requires new technology. Powerful lasers might shoot down small pieces of debris. Satellites specially designed to collide with junk might slow it to the point where it can fall into the atmosphere of its own accord. And missions to the biggest bits of junk might attach retro-rockets to them, to the same end. All this would be expensive, but a global clean-up fund could be created by charging operators of spacecraft a levy based on their crafts’ potential for generating debris.

    Who could administer this? Any single country that developed such means for clearing up space junk risks being suspected by its rivals of creating an anti-satellite weapon. But such fears could be allayed through international co-operation. In this case America, Russia, China and the European Union all have an interest in clean skies. This is one of those rare cases where a focused UN agency could make sense.

    The problem of space pollution
    Junk science
    Scientists are increasingly worried about the amount of debris orbiting the Earth

    Aug 19th 2010

    FEBRUARY 10th 2009 began like every other day in Iridium 33’s 11-year life. One of a constellation of 66 small satellites in orbit around the Earth, it spent its time whizzing through space, diligently shuttling signals to and from satellite phones. At 3pm a report suggested it might see some excitement: two hours later it would pass less than 600 metres from a defunct communications satellite called Cosmos 2251. It did. A lot less. The two craft collided and the result was hundreds of pieces of shrapnel more than 10cm across, and thus large enough to track by radar—and goodness knows how many that were not. This accident came two years after the deliberate destruction by the Chinese of their Fengyun-1C spacecraft in the test of an anti-satellite weapon. That created over 2,000 pieces of junk bigger than 10cm, and an estimated 35,000 pieces more than 1cm across. Together, these incidents increased the number of objects in orbit at an altitude of 700-1,000km by a third (see chart).

    Such low-Earth orbits, or LEOs, are among the most desirable for artificial satellites. They are easy for launch rockets to get to, they allow the planet’s surface to be scanned in great detail for both military and civilian purposes, and they are close enough that even the weak signals of equipment such as satellite phones can be detected. Losing the ability to place satellites safely into LEOs would thus be a bad thing. And that is exactly what these two incidents threatened. At orbital velocity, some eight kilometres a second, even an object a centimetre across could knock a satellite out. The more bits of junk there are out there, the more likely this is to happen. And junk begets junk, as each collision creates more fragments—a phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome, after Donald Kessler, an American physicist who postulated it in the 1970s.

    According to the European Space Agency (ESA) the number of collision alerts has doubled in the past decade. Nicholas Johnson, the chief scientist for orbital debris at ESA’s American equivalent, NASA, says modelling of the behaviour of space debris “most definitely confirms the effect commonly referred to as the Kessler syndrome”. Even the National Security Space Office at the Pentagon is worrying about whether a tipping-point has been reached, or soon will be.

  16. Pingback: Kessler Syndrome
  17. Once launched, the first CubeSat will inflate a balloonlike structure a metre across, to which it will remain attached, in order to create a bigger target. The mother ship will then approach to a distance of seven metres and fire a net at the balloon. This net is designed to unfurl and warp itself around the target. Once the target is entangled, a cable connecting the net to the mother ship will be tightened, closing the neck of the net. It will then be hauled in, like catching fish.

    The second CubeSat will test the sensors of RemoveDEBRIS. This trial will use cameras and a lidar (an optical version of radar) aboard the mother ship to build up a detailed three-dimensional image of the object. If that works it will permit future clean-up vehicles to recognise what they are dealing with, and react appropriately.

    “In the third experiment, RemoveDEBRIS will extend a 1.5-metre-long arm that holds a 10cm-square target. It will then fire a harpoon at the target. The idea is that harpoons could be used to pierce some items of space debris and, like the net in the first experiment, then haul them in.”: The final experiment is intended to ensure that RemoveDEBRIS and its captured items do not themselves become space junk. The mother ship will deploy a ten square-metre plastic membrane, supported by four carbon-fibre booms, to act as a “dragsail” that will employ the limited atmosphere at this altitude to pull the craft downward to the fiery death of re-entry.

  18. Commercial satellites dock high above Earth – BBC News

    The mission extension vehicles (MEVs) on both occasions were provided by the Northrop Grumman Corporation and its subsidiary, SpaceLogistics LLC.

    These vehicles attach themselves by driving a probe into the engine nozzle of their target satellite. A set of “fingers” then extends to lock the hardware in place.

    The approach and grab is done autonomously.

    After years of talking about the possibility of servicing spacecraft in orbit or towing them to new locations, or even pulling them out of the sky back to Earth – the satellite industry is finally starting to showcase the necessary capabilities.

    Northrop Grumman intends to expand the basic “tug” concept offered by the MEVs to include vehicles capable of in-orbit repair and assembly.

    Already it is working on systems that would feature not just simple docking probes but robotic arms to grab hold of satellites. Another option being developed is fuel pods that can be attached to satellites running low on fuel.

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