"Who's responsible? Who pays? How much do they pay?"

amazon, earth’s orbital debris problem is worsening, and policy solutions are difficult

Dave Hebert, Caleb Henry, Therese Jones, and Eric Berger at Ars Frontiers 2022 on the growing problem of orbital debris. Click here for transcript.

One of the greatest threats to humanity’s ongoing expansion into space is the proliferation of debris in low Earth orbit. During a panel discussion at the Ars Frontiers conference earlier this month, a trio of experts described the problem and outlined potential solutions.

The issue of debris is almost as old as spaceflight, explained Caleb Henry, a senior analyst at Quilty Analytics. During the Space Race in the 1960s, the Soviet Union and the United States often launched rockets without regard for the trajectory of the upper stages.

“When you put things in space, they don’t just disappear, same as with most trash,” Henry said. “Trash that’s in space is not biodegradable. The result is that we have tens of thousands of large pieces of debris 10 centimeters or above. And then depending on who you ask, there are millions of pieces that are below 10 centimeters in size, a lot of it being in low Earth orbit.”

In recent years, however, nations have become more responsible about the management of their upper stages. So instead of just letting them fly after a launch, fuel is reserved to de-orbit them into Earth’s atmosphere or put them into orbits far from the Earth-Moon system. But the issue of debris has moved beyond spent rocket stages.

More problems

A second factor in the creation of space debris is the hundreds to thousands of pieces of debris created by anti-satellite tests. Russia, the United States, China, and India have all conducted ground-to-space missile tests to demonstrate their ability to shoot down the satellites of other nations. Recently, after a flagrant Russian demonstration in November that threatened the International Space Station, the United States vowed to end such tests and encouraged other nations to follow suit.

On top of this backdrop of existing debris, there is a newer problem. With the rise of broadband Internet from low-Earth orbit—from the existing Starlink and OneWeb constellations and the forthcoming plans from Amazon, Telesat, and other companies—the number of satellites in already crowded orbits is projected to grow by an order of magnitude or more, said Therese Jones, senior director of policy at the Satellite Industry Association.

“We have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of satellites being launched over the next decade or so.” Jones said. “For reference, right now there are around 5,000 satellites in orbit. So [there will be] an exponential explosion in the number of satellites. And the vast majority of them want to be in a 400 to 600 kilometer range above Earth. So that area is becoming increasingly congested.”

A major challenge of managing the existing debris, and the coming challenge of increasingly congested orbits, is that each nation has its own regulatory environment, and there is little international coordination.

Any solutions?

“It’s not just the technical obstacles of removing debris,” said Dave Hebert, vice president of global marketing communications at Astroscale. “There are policy and economic challenges as well. Who’s responsible? Who pays? How much do they pay? How are we going to hold people accountable?”

Nominally, the regulation of space debris falls under the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. But because this is a consensus-based organization, if Russia, China, or the United States does not agree, nothing happens.

All that exists now are non-binding guidelines focused on long-term sustainability, Jones said. She applauded the Biden Administration for taking a stand on anti-satellite tests and called on the US government to take other steps.

“I think the work really has to be done by the US government on bilateral and multilateral basis, on the coordination and management piece, with like-minded countries to get anywhere,” she said. “And once we start getting other countries to sign up, then it becomes a normal behavior in space that then Russia and China are implicitly bound to, even if they don’t sign off. So I think that’s where we need to go.”

Listing image by Getty Images

Keyword: Earth’s orbital debris problem is worsening, and policy solutions are difficult

TECH'S NEWS RELATED

Amazon begins buying electric trucks NOT from Rivian

Amazon has announced that it will purchase 20 electric semi-trucks from Volvo Trucks to be used in its German delivery network. Volvo Trucks has been producing electric semis since 2019, and they are continuing to expand their sales by now selling 20 electric semi-trucks to Amazon for use in ...

View more: Amazon begins buying electric trucks NOT from Rivian

French writer Annie Ernaux wins the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature

The writing of Nobel Prize-winner Annie Ernaux Fading memories This year’s competition for the Nobel Prize in Literature was especially strong. Contenders included Milan Kundera and Haruki Murakami, who have received just about every writing-related award under the sun, except this one. Many placed their bets on Salman Rushdie. ...

View more: French writer Annie Ernaux wins the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature

A Biological Difference – Exercise Affects Boys and Girls Differently

The findings also indicate that boys with an increase in body fat percentage had an increase in sedentary behavior two years later. A recent study finds that body fat percentage and amount of physical activity in girls are unrelated. Physical activity provides numerous health benefits. However, physical activity affects ...

View more: A Biological Difference – Exercise Affects Boys and Girls Differently

Team develops new tools to help search for life in deep space

Counterclockwise from top: California’s Mono Lake was the site of a field test for JPL’s Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor. A suite of eight instruments designed to detect life in liquid samples from icy moons, OWLS can autonomously track lifelike movement in water flowing past its microscopes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Are ...

View more: Team develops new tools to help search for life in deep space

How light can be used to control processes in synthetic cells

Credit: Shoupeng Cao et al, Angewandte Chemie International Edition (2022). DOI: 10.1002/anie.202205266 Synthetic (artificially produced) cells can imitate certain functions of biological cells. These synthetic cells could open up new medical possibilities in the future. In laboratories, such cells can already help in chemical processes on a miniature scale ...

View more: How light can be used to control processes in synthetic cells

Sub-Optimus

I sat out Friday’s big Tesla AI event. I was actually looking forward to seeing what the company had cooked up after months of teasing, but a combination of rogue stomach virus and the most inconvenient event timing (Friday at 9:15 PM EDT) outside of something held on the other ...

View more: Sub-Optimus

What drives ecosystems to instability?

With only a little information, researchers can predict the circumstances under which an ecosystem will be stable or unstable.

View more: What drives ecosystems to instability?

Go from Xbox gamer to developer with this Deal Days learning bundle

Each new generation of games on the Xbox has consistently surpassed the last, and this one is no exception. (We’ve still yet to come up for air from Elden Ring.) But did you ever wonder where those games keep coming from? In a few short years, they could be ...

View more: Go from Xbox gamer to developer with this Deal Days learning bundle

'Non-native species aren't the boogie man.' Biologist calls for a more balanced view

NASA and SpaceX launch 4 more crew to the space station

Study finds the risks of sharing health care data are low

Apple 27-inch mini LED display expected in early 2023

The Google Pixel Tablet Aims to Shake Up Your Smart Home

Deathloop Is Free For Humble Bundle Subscribers This Month

The Hardest Games on Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S

Boost Your Brain With Boredom

Body neutrality: What it is and how it can help lead to more positive body image

Apple Deals Weekly: Catch this iPad Mini 6 for $99 Off on Amazon

A big step toward treating tuberculosis without risking antibiotic resistance

How we tracked one small seabird species' remarkable flight into a typhoon

OTHER TECH NEWS

;