Aug 9, 2022 - Science

Taking space junk seriously

Illustration of an astronaut floating in outer space while collecting trash and holding a garbage bag.

Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

As close calls between satellites and debris in orbit become more frequent, the U.S. government is signaling that it's time to take the threats posed by space junk seriously.

Why it matters: There are thousands of pieces of space junk circling the Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour, threatening operational satellites and even people in orbit.

  • "I think that the large swaths of space becoming unusable is something that could very well happen in the next few years," Moriba Jah, the co-founder of Privateer Space, tells Axios.

Driving the news: The White House issued an implementation plan at the end of last month detailing the steps the Biden administration hopes to take in order to track, remediate and mitigate debris in orbit, building on work started by previous administrations.

  • The document — which is the culmination of months of inter-agency work — lays out which parts of the U.S. government are responsible for studying ways to clean up junk in space, track it and stop the creation of more of it.
  • The plan could lead to better characterization and tracking of the debris in space today — with research going toward "improving characterization" of debris that's less than 1 centimeter in low-Earth orbit.
  • The document also potentially reopens debate on just how long debris — like rocket bodies — can be allowed to stay in orbit. Current, internationally adopted guidelines that spent satellites and rocket bodies should deorbit after 25 years have been cited as too lax in recent years.

State of play: Experts warn that events like the uncontrolled descent of a Chinese rocket body last month and pieces of a SpaceX capsule that ended up in Australia after re-entering the atmosphere could become more common along with collisions of satellites in orbit in the future.

  • There is already some evidence that the Kessler effect — the self-perpetuating creation of debris from uncontrolled collisions of junk — is happening in some orbits, Luc Riesbeck of Astroscale US says.

The big picture: Cleaning up space junk isn't just about one nation — or one company — taking on the responsibility and making it happen.

  • Instead, like fighting climate change, experts say it will require many nations to come together to establish norms and rules that aggressively target the removal and mitigation of debris.
  • "Space debris is an international problem, but the U.S. has an opportunity to lead," Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, assistant director for space policy at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, tells Axios.

Yes, but: Unlike Europe and Japan, the U.S. doesn't yet have its own cleanup mission on the books, something that the implementation plan doesn't directly put into the pipeline.

  • The regulatory framework around actually removing junk from orbit — especially if it wasn't created by the specific country that is cleaning it up — is also complicated.
  • If one country cleans up junk created by another country, it could set a precedent that leads to one nation interfering with another nation's satellites in orbit. Space junk cleanup could also be a matter of national pride.
  • "For countries that don't have a lot going on in their space sector or are having trouble in their space sector otherwise, it might look bad if they can't even afford to remove their trash from orbit," Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation, says.

What to watch: Congress will now need to appropriate funds to make many of the suggestions laid out in the White House's plan a reality.

  • "I'm glad to see lead organizations identified next to each part of this implementation plan, then it's on Congress to do its job and provide funding in a responsible and meaningful way so that these lead organizations can actually do these things — and then holding these organizations accountable," Jah says.
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