Earlier this year, a five-millimeter hole was discovered in a robotic arm of the International Space Station. It was thought to have been caused by something no larger than a fleck of paint traveling through space ten times faster than the speed of a bullet. Larger pieces of debris can lead to mashups that spray out a shell of debris around our tiny planet. In 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft slammed into a U.S.-based communications satellite, spewing a whopping 1,800 pieces of debris and many other shards too small to count.
The problem of so-called “space junk” has been building ever since Sputnik was launched into orbit in 1957. Since then, earthlings have clogged the space around the planet with derelict rocket bodies, dead spacecraft, and 6,000 mostly defunct satellites. NASA describes the collective 30,000 pieces of debris as the world’s “largest garbage dump.” And that dump is about to get a lot bigger with the rapid rise of the commercial space industry, raising the danger of a planet so clouded with space junk that it could make future launches prohibitively dangerous.
“The commercialization of space has led to an increase in the congestion at altitudes where historically you wouldn’t necessarily have had a congestion issue, around about 500 kilometers,” said Hugh Lewis, a space-debris expert at the University of Southampton. “We’re starting to see those altitudes being very popular.”
According to research by Lewis that models the trajectories of satellites, Starlink near-misses happen 1,600 times every week. He expects the problem to grow as these satellites continue to saturate the night sky. “It’s a way that we can monitor how often these near misses are happening, because that’s telling us something about how congested the orbital region is,” he told Intelligencer. He estimates there will be 100,000 such low-orbit satellites by the end of this decade. They’re already so numerous that they outshine celestial objects astronomers tried to observe with telescopes. “We saw it coming, but we didn’t think that it would get here this fast,” said John Barentine, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association.
Ever since the first 60 Starlink satellites were launched in May 2019, astronomers began dialogue with SpaceX, all the way up to their executive level. But as Barentine points out, the space company had done everything that was required of it under U.S. space law. “All their ducks were in a row, so there was nothing in our law that would prevent them from launching these satellites. They weren’t required to have any concern for astronomy, so to whatever extent they did, it was voluntary.”
Close encounters between the mounting numbers of satellites, debris, and other spacecraft occur thousands of times each year, and they could lead to a nightmare scenario that has been foretold since the late-1970s. Dubbed the Kessler Syndrome, it describes how, as the density of space rubbish increases, debris-generating collisions create a self-sustaining cycle. “You have this out-of-control snowball effect with collisions, and pretty soon the space around the earth is so full of debris that you can’t launch anything anymore,” Barentine said. “The probability of encountering an object on your way out resulting in a collision eventually reaches 100 percent.” For a long time, it was the stuff of science fiction but “something like that really could be our future,” he added.
There are many plans to corral human-made junk from Earth’s orbit, but few have proven they work. The closest to a working concept of technology to clean up space debris is by Japan-based startup Astroscale, which has designed several spacecraft tasked with decluttering space. Last week, Astroscale’s spacecraft successfully captured and released a small satellite that acted as a piece of space junk using a magnet. Eventually, the craft will drag the item to its fiery demise in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.“Given the fact that there were over 9,000 tons of stuff in orbit, that’s going to be a very expensive operation,” Lewis said, adding that the technology needs to become cost effective in order for countries to clean up the mess we’ve left behind. “Something has to change in order to have any hope of a sustainable future in space.”
As Starlink’s deployment makes clear, current guidelines for satellites in space are insufficient for the world we live in now. The Outer Space Treaty developed in the 1960s, the basis for all space law, says all countries will be “liable for damage caused by their space objects” and will “avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.” Some say the treaty is out of date and are calling for its overhaul; others, Barentine said, think it would take too much time to relitigate that and claim the best approach is focusing on national laws is space faring countries. One proposal from the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, a forum of 13 of the world’s space agencies, is called the “25-year rule” that says no spacecraft should be left in orbit more than 25 years after the completion of its mission. After that, it needs to be removed.
In the United States, there’s no environmental review for satellites. Licenses for the operation of satellites once they’re launched are issued by the Federal Communications Commission, which in the 1980s decided that satellite operations are not subject to have their environmental impacts studied. “People are now beginning to question that policy, the least of which because it has no basis in law, and it’s an agency rule that could be overturned by executive order or Congress,” Barentine added. This quick debri-flushing fix — the United States requiring objects in orbit around Earth to be subject to environmental laws – could reinforce the United States longstanding leadership in international space policy. It would define this space in orbit as part of the human environment, and rightly so: “There’s been a human presence in space for decades,” Barentine said.
The U.S. launches more than any other country, as Barentine points out, so whatever America’s policy is will set the course. “Other space-faring nations will look toward us and our space policy to model their own,” Barentine said. “Whatever the outcome with all this is here in the U.S., I think it has a strong potential to have a ripple effect throughout these other countries.”
“People should know that this is a surprisingly new terrain that we’re in, and this story is going to continue to evolve,” Barentine added. “Watch this space.”