Space debris is becoming an increasingly serious problem that could bring humanity’s progress in space as we have known it to date to a halt
A new video from the European Space Agency (ESA) is trying to get the attention of governments, companies and scientists alike. At 12 minutes long, ESA warns us about the dangers of space debris in the very near future. It also discusses how nations need to change their approaches to satellite technology if it is to remain viable in the future.
On the other hand, a group of scientists has published an article in the journal Nature Astronomy, calling for environmental protection of space. Until now, getting the media, governments and companies to focus their attention on terrestrial environmental problems has been difficult. However, the problem does not end at the planet’s surface, and the Earth’s orbit is becoming dangerously littered with space debris.
According to the scientists in charge of launching the communiqué, this could lead to quite serious consequences in the near future; and worse in the long term.
More than 30,000 pieces of space junk have been recorded and are regularly tracked by space surveillance networks. As our technology improves, we detect an increasing number of unidentified objects. Due to the time lag between their creation and our observation, it is difficult to trace their origins to a specific “fragmentation event”.
The European Space Agency places special emphasis on the considerable increase in satellite launches. Specifically those that form constellations in the low orbit of the planet. Among these, we can find examples such as SpaceX’s Starlink; and Planet Labs’ Pelican to be launched in the coming years.
At the moment, there are more than 30,000 pieces of space junk floating around the planet. However, this is only the number that is known. Other studies show that there could be more than a million pieces larger than one centimeter orbiting around the planet.
The problem of space debris
Space debris is another barrier to overcome in the fight against environmental pollution. However, the problems it causes go far beyond mere contamination, and could even impede human technological progress if not addressed in time.
The biggest problem has to do with space debris collisions. Although they are, in many cases, particles smaller than a centimeter, space debris is traveling at such speeds that a collision with functional satellites would lead to their total loss. Such an event creates, in turn, more debris particles that are scattered around the orbit and continue the cycle.
If this continues, we could be affected by ‘Kessler’s syndrome’. If we were in this situation, there would be so much debris in orbit that it would become impossible to avoid collisions between functional satellites and debris, making it difficult or totally impossible to launch more space missions.
According to the researchers in their paper, we should apply the same ground-based protection optics to space as well. After all, satellites have become the best ally for the advancement of humanity, and for the study of our planet. Because of this, we are not only endangering public access to the stars, but also “the cultural importance of the sky, as well as the sustainability of commercial, civic and military activity in space,” the scientists comment.