Early Monday morning, a field of debris hurtled at some 17,000 miles per hour through the part of space where a derelict Russian satellite, Cosmos 1408, once orbited. Later that day, US State Department officials claimed that the 1,500-plus bits of flotsam originated from a Russian test of an anti-satellite missile. The risks of so much floating junk immediately became apparent: The fragments flew dangerously close to the International Space Station, forcing the crew to take shelter in the least vulnerable parts of the spacecraft.
The situation could’ve played out like the scene in the 2013 movie Gravity in which an astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, flees the ISS as it’s destroyed by a massive clump of orbiting debris. The real shower of shrapnel missed the ISS, but it continued to make close passes every 90 minutes or so. Some of it will likely remain in orbit for decades. Russian officials, who on Tuesday confirmed the weapons test, claim the fragments aren’t a hazard for space activity.
US officials think otherwise. “The debris created by Russia's [anti-satellite test] will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers,” stated General James Dickinson, head of the US Space Command, in a press release on Monday. “Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
The Pentagon currently tracks 27,000 pieces of debris in orbit, which include everything from dead spacecraft and used-up rocket boosters to the detritus left behind from satellite-destroying missile tests like this one, which have also previously been conducted by China, the US, and India. Just one week ago, the ISS had to swerve slightly to dodge a close pass by a piece of debris from a Chinese 2007 anti-satellite test. Millions of untrackable fragments of trash smaller than 10 centimeters across orbit as well, adding to the risks. Finding ways to address this growing halo of space junk, before some orbits, relied upon by satellite companies and space agencies, become so polluted that they’re no longer usable, has now become a major goal of the US government as well as international institutions.
Managing worsening space traffic, and avoiding making more junk, have long been high priorities for NASA and the United Nations. But so far, their efforts mostly focus on prevention and don’t deal with what’s already out there. To actively tackle the problem, today the Space Force’s technology arm, known as SpaceWERX, will begin recruiting the private sector to develop proposals for actually removing debris via a new program called Orbital Prime. SpaceWERX will initially award dozens of contracts worth $250,000 each, likely starting early next year, to companies that have the ability to whisk trash out of harm’s way, as well as to perform other duties like refueling and repairing orbiting spacecraft to prevent them from becoming derelict.
“All we need is someone to simply say, ‘We’re going to pay for debris removal services,’ and you’ll create a multibillion-dollar market overnight. And that happened,” says Jeromy Grimmet, founder and CEO of Rogue Space Systems, a company based in Laconia, New Hampshire. Rogue Space is ready to participate in Orbital Prime, and intends to compete for contracts, Grimmet says.
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At first, the Space Force will be assessing the range of technologies currently available, says Lieutenant Colonel Brian Holt, the lead for Orbital Prime. “If the government, and specifically SpaceWERX, could prime the pump, where could we get the biggest economic bang, with economic prosperity and national security?” asks Holt.
Four months after the initial contracts, the second phase will begin, involving contracts worth $1.5 million each. Phase two will be followed by the deployment of technologies into orbit, in 2023 or 2024. For now, the companies eligible to compete must be based in the US and partnered with researchers at a university or federally-funded research institution. The program’s goal is to “move an entire market area forward,” Holt says.
“I appreciate the Space Force getting involved in this and trying to provide support,” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado. But he’s concerned about what seems to be a relatively small initial investment, compared with the scale of the problem. “I wonder if that’s going to lead to something that’s sustainable, other than a quick demonstration,” he says.
Weeden likens space debris to climate change, in that the problem has steadily worsened. Action needs to be taken now to prevent a cascade of future disasters. If debris destroys spacecraft, that will beget more debris and cause more collisions, until low-Earth orbit becomes a junkyard, rather than the current bustling highway of satellites providing communications, navigation, and broadband internet around the world. Even a decade ago, early models of space traffic and debris buildup didn’t anticipate how quickly it would become hazardous to satellites, Weeden says, with rapidly growing “megaconstellations” like SpaceX’s Starlink and with new junk-generating anti-satellite tests adding to the congestion.
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Neither the space industry nor government institutions have yet narrowed in on a particular approach toward space trash. For example, Rogue Space Systems is developing a wasp-like spacecraft called Fred Orbot, with solar panels that resemble wings. It’s designed to pick up medium-sized pieces of space garbage and move them away from oncoming satellites. With its four robotic appendages, it will float toward debris or a satellite, snatch it in its arms, and gently tow it into a different orbit. If it’s grabbing a piece of space junk, it will push it down into a lower orbit, so that it will eventually fall and burn up in the atmosphere. Alternatively, Fred could be equipped with small thrusters or tethers it could stick to a defunct spacecraft to propel the object downward, allowing Fred to quickly flutter on toward its next orbital task.
Other companies have been focusing on technologies to get rid of larger pieces of trash, including bus-sized rocket bodies that, in the event of a collision, would create a lot of debris. This debris can weigh tons, won’t be easy to grab or move to a new orbit, and could be too huge to burn up. “These objects aren’t sitting there; they’re tumbling. You have a very difficult choreography for the rendezvous,” says Darren McKnight, senior technical fellow at LeoLabs, a company based in Menlo Park, California, that monitors space junk with radar systems. He and his colleagues are experimenting with a third approach, often called “just-in-time collision avoidance.” This could involve something as simple as a puff of powder in front of a dead spacecraft could provide enough air resistance to slow it or slightly nudge it onto a different trajectory. Or one could attach small thrusters and a GPS receiver to it, turning it into a kind of zombie craft, which could be made to move on its own—at least enough to avoid a crash.
Regardless of the approach, McKnight says, with so many technologies in development, he’d like to see them used sooner rather than later. “We need to actually put these systems that are known to work into orbit. The time for tinkering is over,” he says.
This sentiment is reflected in a spate of new international initiatives, like Net Zero Space, announced on November 12 at the Paris Peace Forum, an international nonprofit group that organized the effort. The Net Zero Space declaration reads like a United Nations agreement, with a commitment to two main goals: Don’t make more space debris, and start removing current debris by 2030. “Collective, concrete steps must be taken to prevent a rapid degradation of Earth’s orbital environment,” it states.
Despite widespread recognition of the space junk problem among both space agencies and the industry, “there’s very little international cooperation,” says Jérôme Barbier, head of space, digital and economic issues at the Paris Peace Forum. Yet, he continues, “space debris does not have nationalities. They are threatening all of our assets and all of the services related to them, and we need to take action before it’s too late.”
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The agreement’s initial signatories include international groups like the French space agency, and companies like Planet, Astroscale, and Chang Guang Satellite, based in the US, Japan, and China, respectively. On October 26, the UK Space Agency announced new initiatives with similar goals, while the European Space Agency has been working on space debris removal for the past couple years.
ClearSpace, a Swiss startup, has been working with both agencies on the deployment of its own debris-removing spacecraft. Its first attempt, ClearSpace-1, is planned for launch in 2025. The craft’s tentacle-like arms will grab Vespa, an ESA upper stage rocket left behind in 2013. The ClearSpace-1 spacecraft will bring it down into the atmosphere, where both will disintegrate. Future missions will involve spacecraft that can move up and down in orbit, pulling multiple pieces of debris out of the danger zone, says Muriel Richard-Noca, ClearSpace’s chief engineer and cofounder.
She compares low-Earth orbit to a freeway where more and more broken-down cars have been left on the road, as others struggle to avoid smashing into them. “Right now, satellite operators cannot call a tow truck service. This demonstration is very important because it will demonstrate the feasibility of the tow truck,” she says.
Nevertheless, an inherent problem complicates the use of such technologies: Any device that could remove a wreck from that freeway could just as easily mess with someone else’s car. These spacecraft are considered dual-use technologies: They could be used to clean up the space environment—or as weapons that might damage or spy on a rival nation or company’s expensive, functioning satellites.
So far, there aren’t many rules governing weapons in space, either missiles launched from the ground or clean-up spacecraft with potentially nefarious agendas, says Wendy Whitman Cobb, a researcher at the Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in Montgomery, Alabama. “So the way that the Space Force is going about this, by going through the private industry and by having universities and private companies build and deploy it, shows that they’re sensitive to these concerns about the growing weaponization of space,” she says.
She thinks the threat of space debris, illuminated by the recent near-miss with the ISS, could spur the international community to take stronger action. “Unfortunately, we don’t take these problems seriously until something bad happens,” she says. “I’d hate to see something bad happen to the International Space Station, or to anything else that’s up there, because of the way we have treated space so far.”
Update 11-18-2021 2 PM EST: This story was updated to clarify which LeoLabs project is considered "just in time" technology.
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