ESA's Space Environment Report 2021
by Staff Writers
Paris (ESA) May 31, 2021
Imagine driving down a road which has more broken cars, bikes and vans lining the street than functioning vehicles. This is the scene our satellites face in Earth orbit. In fact, since the start of the space age there has been more debris, "space junk", in orbit than operational satellites.
So how do we clean up this mess?
The mitigation measures described in the guidelines set out how 'space actors' should design, fly, and vitally dispose of their missions in order to prevent the creation of further debris. They include 'passivation'; ensuring no explosive fuel is left on-board at the end of a mission's life, performing 'collision avoidance manoeuvres' to prevent in-space crashes, and the requirement to remove spacecraft from low-Earth orbit within 25 years of the end of their lives, among others.
So how well is the international community doing? Every year, ESA publishes its Space Environment Report to give a transparent overview of global space activities, estimate the impact of these activities on the environment and determine how well international debris reduction measures are improving the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.
+ Our current behaviour in space is unsustainable. If we continue as we are, the number of objects in orbit will make it hard to safely operate in space at all.
+ The amount of objects in space; including their combined mass and their combined area, is steadily increasing.
+ Improved surveillance technologies in the last decades mean smaller debris objects can be reliably tracked and catalogued. While we know of significant amounts of debris, we cannot necessarily trace back to the events that created them.
+ The kind of objects launched to low-Earth orbit are changing: on average, satellites are getting smaller and are often launched into large constellations of thousands of satellites.
+ On average over the last two decades, 12.5 non-deliberate, debris-creating events have occurred every year.
+ The vast majority of rocket bodies and missions at high altitudes, in 'geostationary orbit', are being sustainably disposed of.
+ Behaviours in low-Earth orbit are not changing fast enough: more than half of operators flying at this important altitude make no attempt to sustainably dispose of their missions.
We're launching more than ever
[PL = Payload (the "cargo": usually one or many satellites that a rocket launches to space); PF = Payload Fragmentation Debris; PD = Payload Debris; PM = Payload Mission Related Object; RB = Rocket Body; RF = Rocket Fragmentation Debris; RD = Rocket Debris; RM = Rocket Mission Related Object; UI = Unidentified.]
Commercial satellites sky-rocket in low-Earth orbit
Many of these satellites are being launched into large constellations in order to provide communication services around the globe. While they bring great benefits, they pose a challenge to long term sustainability.
The changing shape of space missions
Today, such objects are a tiny fraction of the missions launched to space, with the vast majority being smaller satellites weighing between 100 - 1000 kg.
Space operators nearby are not doing enough
More than half of space actors operating the latter 'non-compliant' missions make no attempt to sustainably dispose of their missions. The numbers are gradually improving, but it is not fast enough.
Rockets are now doing their job responsibly
This is because more rockets now perform a "controlled reentry" into Earth's atmosphere.
Far away, satellites are being disposed of responsibly
This region has become highly commercialised, meaning there are clear financial incentives to keep this important region clear of debris and safe for current and future missions.
Our past is explosive
Energy left undisposed of on-board a satellite or rocket body can lead to explosions. For this reason, the international space debris mitigation guidelines require that satellites are 'passivated' at the end of their mission - for example by emptying fuel tanks and disconnecting batteries.
Over the last two decades the average number of fragmentation events has remained stable at roughly 12.5 per year. Depending on which type of event is counted, this number can be as low as 0.3 events per year; if the lifetime of debris created is taken into account, and if unexplained and 'systematic' events and are excluded (where the cause of the problem was known, and could have been avoided). This suggests that many debris-creating events with a large environmental impact are still taking place partly due to re-use of a design with known issues. With appropriate action, the number of events each year could be dramatically reduced.
Our future could be smashing
One vital solution is to ensure functional satellites are able to avoid collision with the debris that crosses their path. The process of 'swerving' a satellite out of the way of debris is time consuming but vital, and ESA is working on an automated system that will ensure collision avoidance remains practical as the number of satellites in orbit continues to rapidly increase.
Astroscale UK to develop space debris removal technology innovations with OneWeb
Harwell UK (SPX) May 25, 2021
Astroscale UK announces funding award from partners OneWeb, the global satellite communications network, to mature their technology and capability towards a commercial service offering by 2024. This latest 2.5 million pound award forms part of a larger beam-hopping satellite programme, totalling over 32 million pounds, granted from the UK Space Agency, via the European Space Agency's Sunrise Programme to partners including OneWeb, SatixFy, Celestia UK and Astroscale UK. OneWeb is leading the ... read more
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