. 24/7 Space News .
ESA's Space Environment Report 2021
by Staff Writers
Paris (ESA) May 31, 2021

By every measure, the amount of debris in orbit is increasing - from the number of objects launched to their overall mass and the area they take up. A number of unidentified objects "UI" have also appeared in recent years. The objects are not necessarily new to space, but we are only recently able to observe them. Because of the time between their creation and our observation of them, it is difficult to track their origins to a specific "fragmentation event".

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?
In 2002, a major step was taken to create some rules for our space highways. The Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) published the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which have since served as the baseline for space policy, national legislation, and technical standards.

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.

In summary

+ 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
By every measure, the amount of debris in orbit is increasing, from the number of objects launched to their overall mass and the area they take up. A number of unidentified objects "UI" has also appeared in recent years. These objects are not necessarily new to space, but we are only recently able to observe them. Because of the time elapsed between their creation and our observation of them, it is difficult to trace their origins to a specific "fragmentation event".

[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
In the last two years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of commercial satellites launched to near-Earth space.

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
The first decades of spaceflight saw large missions launched into near-Earth orbit, with more than half weighing upwards of 1000 kg.

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
In low-Earth orbit, some "naturally compliant" objects safely burn up in the atmosphere without intervention. However, many others needs to be manoeuvred to safety from the ground.

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
One of the most positive stories in debris mitigation has played out in the last 20 years, as rocket bodies - the largest objects we send to space - are now nearly all disposed of sustainably compared to less than 20% at the turn of the millennium.

This is because more rockets now perform a "controlled reentry" into Earth's atmosphere.

Far away, satellites are being disposed of responsibly
At high altitudes - in the geostationary orbit, mostly used for communication satellites - almost all space actors attempt to sustainably clear their missions from orbit, and the vast majority do so successfully.

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
The millions of fragments of debris in orbit today are the direct result of 'fragmentation events' in the past. Of the roughly 550 events known to date, those caused by propulsion have created the greatest amount of space debris.

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
This plot shows debris objects large enough to be tracked from the ground that a hypothetical mission would encounter at various altitudes, and where they came from. A large proportion of debris objects in orbit today are leftover from just a couple "fragmentation events", namely the infamous collision between satellites Cosmos-2251 and Iridium 33 in 2009 which created a huge cloud of debris, as well as various rocket related debris and the intentional explosion of Fengyun 1C in 2007. At lower altitudes, our fictional satellite would frequently encounter smaller satellites and constellations which need to be coordinated.

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.

+ Click here to read the report in full

Related Links
Space Debris at ESA
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

Thanks for being there;
We need your help. The SpaceDaily news network continues to grow but revenues have never been harder to maintain.

With the rise of Ad Blockers, and Facebook - our traditional revenue sources via quality network advertising continues to decline. And unlike so many other news sites, we don't have a paywall - with those annoying usernames and passwords.

Our news coverage takes time and effort to publish 365 days a year.

If you find our news sites informative and useful then please consider becoming a regular supporter or for now make a one off contribution.
SpaceDaily Monthly Supporter
$5+ Billed Monthly

paypal only
SpaceDaily Contributor
$5 Billed Once

credit card or paypal

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

Comment using your Disqus, Facebook, Google or Twitter login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks
del.icio.usdel.icio.us DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

NASA awards new spacecraft avionics development contract

New NASA Student Challenge offers hands-on tech development

Ultrasonic welding makes parts for NASA missions, commercial industry

NASA awards laser air monitoring system contract for Orion

NASA stacks elements for upper portion of Artemis II Core Stage

A passion for hypersonics propels success at AFRL Lab

PLD Space receives ESA contract to study reusing MIURA 5 boosters

Russian rocket launches UK telecom satellites after delay

NASA's Curiosity rover captures shining clouds on Mars

Newly discovered glaciers could aid human survival on Mars

Surviving an in-flight anomaly: what happened on Ingenuity's 6th flight

NASA software unlocks Martian rover productivity

China cargo craft docks with space station module

New advances inspire China's deep space exploration

China postpones launch of robotic cargo spacecraft

Space station core module in orbit to prep for next stage of construction

Kleos engages ISISPACE to build third satellite cluster

Iridium makes strategic investment in DDK Positioning for enhanced GNSS accuracy

European space program seeks first disabled astronaut

SES Prices EUR 625 Million Hybrid Bond Offering

ESA's Space Environment Report 2021

Canadian manipulator on ISS holed by space debris

AFRL Materials Characterization Facility pushes state of the art

Graphene solves concrete's big problem

Thirty year stellar survey cracks mysteries of galaxy's giant planets

Scientists develop new molecular tool to detect alien life

Deep oceans dissolve the rocky shell of water-ice planets

Origins of life researchers develop a new ecological biosignature

Jupiter antenna that came in from the cold

Europa's interior may be hot enough to fuel seafloor volcanoes

Experiments validate the possibility of helium rain inside Jupiter and Saturn

Deep water on Neptune and Uranus may be magnesium-rich

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2024 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. All articles labeled "by Staff Writers" include reports supplied to Space Media Network by industry news wires, PR agencies, corporate press officers and the like. Such articles are individually curated and edited by Space Media Network staff on the basis of the report's information value to our industry and professional readership. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Statement Our advertisers use various cookies and the like to deliver the best ad banner available at one time. All network advertising suppliers have GDPR policies (Legitimate Interest) that conform with EU regulations for data collection. By using our websites you consent to cookie based advertising. If you do not agree with this then you must stop using the websites from May 25, 2018. Privacy Statement. Additional information can be found here at About Us.