Dealing with space debris, preventing chain reaction

Dealing with space debris, preventing chain reaction

During April 18 - 21, experts from around the world will meet at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany for the 7th European Conference on Space Debris discussing the extent of the space debris problem and what can be done to ensure that satellites we rely on continue operating safely in the future.

With around 750 000 objects larger than 1 cm (0.39 inches) orbiting Earth, we are completely surrounded by space debris and we keep adding new. At average speeds of 40 000 km/h (24 854 mph), impacts on space hardware would deliver roughly the energy equivalent to the explosion of a hand grenade. Consequences for our operational satellites could be severe. What space debris experts fear most is a chain reaction - when objects break apart in collisions and fragments go on to smash into other objects creating more debris

"These collisions generate more fragments, and these fragments are candidates for new collisions to come. The largest fear that we have is that we enter into some kind of cascading effect where one collision triggers the next one," said Holder Krag, Head of ESA Space Debris Office.

"This is not anything that would happen within a microsecond like in the movie Gravity. It would set in slowly and hardly noticeable, but it would be unstoppable. Over decades, the frequency of collisions might increase without human influence. That is the scenario that might render some regions in space unusable for space flight and that would be a disaster for space flight."

About 18 000 of those 750 000 pieces of debris are large enough to be regularly monitored by powerful surveillance systems. Such monitoring data are used by space agencies such as ESA to avoid collisions. The majority of these objects have been generated by more than 250 explosions.

With the increase in the number of objects in space, experts believe that collisions among these objects, some of which have already occurred, might become the primary source for new fragments in orbit. Experts have proposed countermeasures that would mitigate this problem. However, significant challenges are faced by spacefaring organizations to implement these measures.

Delegates at the 7th European Conference on Space Debris will discuss the extent of the debris problem and what can be done to ensure that satellites we rely on – providing us with services such as navigation, TV and weather forecasting – can operate safely in the future.

Talks will address acute issues like current practices in debris avoidance, novel concepts for removing debris, and the deployment of large constellations of several thousand satellites for telecommunications.

The conference will be opened by ESA Director General Jan Woerner and NASA’s former orbital debris chief scientist, Donald Kessler.

Live webcasts will cover the keynote address and press briefing, respectively.

Featured image copyright: ESA

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