The number of man-made objects in orbit around the Earth that no longer serve any useful purpose is on the rise as launch costs decrease dramatically. These objects can range from discarded rocket stages to small screws and paint chips. This debris poses a significant threat to satellites and spacecraft in orbit, as well as to human activities on Earth. The smallest pieces of debris can cause significant damage when they collide with other objects in orbit, due to the high speeds involved. With over 128 million pieces of debris already orbiting our planet, space has become increasingly crowded, significantly raising the risks associated with space missions.
This causes a potential cascade effect, also known as the Kessler Syndrome. A worrying concept that describes a scenario in which a collision between two larger objects produces an avalanche of debris, leading to a chain reaction of collisions. This vicious cycle would generate even more debris, further exacerbating the risks and making certain orbits hazardous for future space missions.
Aware of the mounting risks, space agencies and organizations are actively working on finding solutions. Strategies include implementing guidelines for satellite design and disposal, promoting responsible space operations, and improving tracking systems to monitor and predict potential collisions. Some concepts involve active debris removal missions, aiming to clean up the most congested orbits.
One of the main challenges in space debris mitigation is the sheer scale of the problem. There are currently over 27,000 objects in orbit that are larger than 10 cm, and millions of smaller pieces of debris that are too small to track. This makes it difficult to accurately predict the risk of collisions and to identify and track individual pieces of debris.
The effectiveness of these mitigation efforts is dependent on global collaboration and cooperation. International efforts, such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), bring together space agencies and organizations to exchange information, establish best practices, and coordinate debris mitigation measures. Proposals for standardized international guidelines and regulations that encourage responsible behavior and ensure that all space actors take the necessary steps to mitigate the risk of space debris are more necessary than ever before.
Kessler Syndrome is not a guaranteed eventuality, however the recent boom in the space industry has accelerated us along that path. If left unchecked, orbiting debris could spell disaster for this fledgling industry. By taking a proactive approach to space debris mitigation, we can ensure that space remains a safe and sustainable environment for generations to come.