Oct 24, 2023 - Science

Space junk risk gets real

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The dangers of space junk are becoming clearer.

Why it matters: Space debris threatens satellites and astronauts and is cluttering parts of Earth's orbit that are in high demand.

  • As junk is created — either through satellites that run out of fuel, collisions between spacecraft or other events — it can stay in orbit speeding around Earth at more than 17,000 mph for months or years, putting other spacecraft at risk.
  • Earlier this year, a report filed by SpaceX to the FCC showed that the company's Starlink satellites had to maneuver to avoid collisions 25,000 times between December 2022 and May 2023, reflecting an increasingly crowded space environment.

What's happening: Scientists and satellite operators have long understood that junk whizzing around in orbit puts operational satellites at risk, but now, the risks to Earth itself are starting to take shape.

  • An FAA report earlier this month suggested surviving debris from constellations of satellites and rocket parts burning up in the atmosphere could kill or injure someone on Earth every two years by 2035. (SpaceX, however, has disputed this claim, saying it was based on an analysis of old data.)
  • According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, traces of metals from satellites burning up as they fall back to Earth are polluting the planet's atmosphere, though it's not yet clear what effect those pollutants are having on our planet.
  • "We are finding this human-made material in what we consider a pristine area of the atmosphere," study co-author Dan Cziczo, of Purdue University, said in a statement. "And if something is changing in the stratosphere — this stable region of the atmosphere — that deserves a closer look."

Between the lines: While space junk has been a serious topic of conversation for scientists and people in the space industry for years, policy has taken some time to catch up.

  • "The question is: How do you update the governance to really reflect the space environment as it currently exists?" the Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson tells Axios.
  • Space junk "was always a theoretical concern, and now we're faced with the actuality," Samson says. "Unfortunately, policy oftentimes is beaten by technology, which doesn't always lead to good policy as it tries to play catch up."

Meanwhile, there are signs that policymakers are starting to take the space junk problem seriously.

  • The FAA recently proposed a rule that would require operators to dispose of the upper stages of rocket bodies in specific ways in a set amount of time in an effort to limit debris creation.
  • The FCC also recently issued its first-ever fine to the satellite TV provider Dish for its failure to safely de-orbit a satellite.

The intrigue: Companies are starting to look for possible ways to make money while solving these issues.

  • LeoLabs and others are focusing on tracking satellites and debris, helping alert government and commercial actors to close calls.
  • Privateer is working on finding new and better ways to track how junk moves in space, giving scientists and operators a better sense of what's happening in orbit at any given time.
  • Other companies, like Northrop Grumman's SpaceLogistics, are focusing on satellite servicing to extend the lives of aging spacecraft in orbit.

Yes, but: The business case for cleaning up space junk is still murky.

  • "Who pays for the cleanup? That's always been the dirty little secret of debris removal ... that there's just no business case for that in low Earth orbit," Samson says.
  • Governments have a vested interest in cleaning up space to keep it safe for future missions, but it's not yet clear how much money they would put toward those efforts.
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