Significant advances were made in everything from technology and physics to strategic defense as humanity started sending satellites into the low-Earth orbit. The mixture of already orbiting, operational satellites, and abandoned space debris such as spent rocket boosters, though, is quickly spiraling out of reach. NASA, as well as other space organizations, are now conscious of the issue and working on solutions, but the typical American may be unaware of the scope of the challenge. Here’s a brief rundown of the space junk epidemic and how much it’ll cost us in the future.
There are approximately 6,250 satellites in space right now. The figure is enough to cause a dilemma of its own, but the figure is about to skyrocket. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink mission aims to launch an extra 12,000 tiny spacecraft into orbit by 2027. Although these Starlink satellites have the ability to provide internet access to large regions of the globe, they would often add to the clutter in low-Earth orbit. Scientists from both optical as well as radio telescopes have also expressed their displeasure with the initiative for messing with their findings.
In addition to the existing number of satellites in space, there is a lot of “junk” floating about in low-Earth orbit, which is becoming a growing source of concern. There are reportedly 34,000 debris structures with a diameter of 10 centimeters or greater, with 23,000 of them being monitored for collision avoidance. According to the United States government’s National Orbital Debris Research and Development Plan, a collision between an operational satellite and an object of this scale “would most definitely result in disastrous loss of the satellite.” In addition to these obviously damaging items, there are more than 100 million debris objects with a diameter of at least one millimeter that can inflict destruction while orbiting at 17,500 mph. In the last 5 years, the number of low debris objects has risen by 50%.
ClearSpace-1, which is scheduled to deploy in 2025, is the very first autonomous mission to eliminate space debris ever created. This spacecraft, which cost $118 million, is the very first of what will be a series of expensive space flights to clear low-Earth orbit. Since the Office of Space Commerce’s budget for 2021, which has “orbital waste” as one of its priority fields, is just $10 million, substantial success in picking up space junk will take some time. However, more funds would undoubtedly be invested because the damage to satellites is so high. A weather-tracking satellite, for instance, will cost as much as $290 million to construct, resulting in a major financial loss if it collides. To escape a crash with space junk, the International Space Station had to shift its orbit thrice in 2020 alone.