We have a space problem and when we say space, we don’t mean the area, but the cosmos!
According to the latest Orbital Debris Quarterly News report, published by NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, there are 25,182 pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm in size in low-Earth orbits that are within 2,000 km of the Earth’s surface.
Of these, India is responsible for only 114 space debris objects, while the United States has 5,126 objects in Earth orbit that can be categorized as space debris, and China has 3,854 objects, including discarded rocket bodies, orbiting the Earth.
The report also mentioned that India’s space debris had fallen to 2018 levels after seeing a spike in 2019 when it conducted its first-ever anti-satellite test.
Also Read: 27,000 Man-Made Objects in Earth Orbit, and Counting: Space Junk Will Stay
Before delving further into the report, let’s understand what space junk is and why it could be a problem.
What is space junk?
Space debris, also known as space junk, is a man-made object in orbit around Earth that no longer serves a useful purpose.
Large objects like dead satellites that have failed or been left in orbit, or smaller things like debris or paint splatter that fell from a rocket are all prime examples of space debris.
Britannica explains that this material can be as large as a discarded rocket stage or as small as a microscopic sliver of paint. Much of the debris is in low Earth orbit, within 2,000 km (1,200 miles) of the Earth’s surface, although some debris can be found in geostationary orbit 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above the equator.
According to experts, all space debris is the result of us launching objects from Earth. Debris or satellites left at higher altitudes of 36,000 kilometers — where communications and weather satellites are often placed in geostationary orbits — can orbit the Earth for hundreds or even thousands of years.
In other cases, space debris can be created when two satellites collide or during anti-satellite tests.
Anti-satellite tests are rare, but there have been instances where the US, China and even India have used a missile to blow up their own satellite, causing thousands of new pieces of debris.
India’s Anti-Sat Test and Resulting Debris
The space debris problem first became big news when India launched from the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam from conducted the Shakti mission, an anti-satellite missile test.
.@DRDO_India successfully launched the Ballistic Missile Defense #BMD Interceptor missile, in an anti-satellite #ASAT missile test #MissionShakti Attacking an Indian orbiting target satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a hit to kill mode from the island of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam pic.twitter.com/n5DEWLQpSp
— PIB India (@PIB_India) March 27, 2019
In the test, India destroyed a defunct Indian satellite orbiting at a distance of 300 km. The incident became big news as India became only the fourth nation behind the US, China and Russia to possess such technology.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the move, saying it was “historic”.
In every nation’s journey there are moments that inspire the greatest pride and have a historical impact on generations to come.
Such a moment is today.
India has successfully tested the anti-satellite missile (ASAT). Congratulations to everyone on the success of #MissionShakti.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 27, 2019
The move, however, drew criticism from NASA, with its administrator – Jim Bridenstine – who said the test created 60 pieces of orbital debris large enough to track them, 24 of which climb higher than the orbit of the planet International Space Station around Earth.
Bridenstine had said at the time that such moves were unacceptable. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris into an apogee that’s over the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at a town hall meeting televised live on NASA. “And this type of activity is inconsistent with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see.”
A year later, NASA found at least 28 pieces of debris from the A-SAT rocket test, according to a report published in The pressure.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, NASA initially tracked at least 101 pieces of debris from the A-SAT test, 28 of which were in low Earth orbit.
Also Read: Debris from India’s Anti-satellite Test Still Floating in Orbit, and Now We May Know Why
Dangers of space debris
The biggest problem with space debris is the danger it poses to other orbiting satellites. The space debris can hit these satellites and potentially damage or destroy them.
The debris can also increase costs for satellite operators. Industry experts have estimated that protecting and reducing space debris accounts for about 5-10 percent of the cost of satellite missions.
Space debris could also potentially create unusable regions of orbit due to pollution.
Can we clean up space debris?
According to NASA, debris in orbits below 600 kilometers will fall back to Earth within a few years, but above 1,000 kilometers will continue to orbit for a century or more.
Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency has partnered with Astroscale, a Japanese start-up, to find and salvage used satellites and other space debris.
The European Space Agency is partnering with Swiss start-up ClearSpace to launch a mission in 2025.
In India, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) studied the technologies required for active debris removal.
PMO Minister of State Jitendra Singh said ISRO established the Space Situational Awareness and Management Directorate to deal with issues related to space debris.
With contributions from agencies
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