Apr 27, 2021 - Science

A make-or-break moment for cleaning up space junk

Illustration of a trash picker pulling garbage from space

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Companies and governments around the world are racing to figure out how to clean up human-made junk that is cluttering space.

Why it matters: Trackers are seeing more and more close calls between satellites, as companies work to deploy constellations of hundreds to thousands of small spacecraft, adding to fears that those small satellites could become junk themselves.

  • Cleaning up junk requires finding new ways to remove it from orbit — and experts say regulations and policy need to be clarified to prevent more from accumulating.
  • At the moment, NASA estimates there are hundreds of thousands of untrackable pieces of junk in orbit around the Earth that threaten operational satellites and even people in space.

What's happening: Companies are starting to prove out the technology needed to actively remove debris and failing satellites from orbit.

  • Last month, Astroscale's ELSA-d spacecraft launched on a mission to test its technology designed to latch on to a piece of junk and hurtle it back through the Earth, burning up harmlessly as it enters the atmosphere.
  • Northrop Grumman also used its MEV-2 mission this month to dock with a satellite in orbit, in order to extend its life and keeping it from becoming space junk faster.
  • "From a technology standpoint and from a market visibility standpoint, the development of satellite servicing and the related ecosystem will contribute to the viability of the active debris removal concepts," Ian Christensen of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.

A major hurdle to cleaning up space junk has been figuring out who is responsible for removing debris and how it is regulated.

  • A new study from the Aerospace Corporation shared exclusively with Axios recommends that if a company wants to remove a certain failed satellite or piece of junk from orbit, they should simply ask permission first — a way of avoiding the thorny issue of creating an international framework around the removal of debris, at least for now.
  • "Once a debris owner provides permission to somebody to remove a piece of debris, a lot of things can be worked out with the existing regulatory regime," Josef Koller, one of the authors of the new paper, told me.

The big picture: Experts also hope the Biden administration will create new policies that will help limit the creation of space junk as more and more players send their wares to space.

  • "The first four years of this Biden administration need to include action on debris," Luc Riesbeck of Astroscale US told me. "The U.S. is licensing a lot satellites to go up, and when you do that as a country, you are accepting that liability for the risk of those systems."
  • Reports now suggest that in order to keep certain orbits around Earth safe for new satellites in the coming years, there will need to be active cleanup, with companies and countries removing debris.
  • And that becomes even more urgent as companies like SpaceX continue to launch hundreds of satellites to orbit that are threatened by space junk and could contribute to junk themselves.

Yes, but: It's still not clear if there's money to be made for the companies looking to remove debris from orbit.

  • Questions around liability and responsibility for cleaning up orbit remain, and the technology still needs to prove effective in real-life scenarios.
  • The coming year or two will demonstrate whether or not these companies will be able to make money and who exactly is willing to pay them to remove junk from space.
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