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Man-made 'space junk' is already making it more difficult to explore the final frontier

So what are organisations like the European Space Agency doing about it?

WHEN AMATEUR IRISH astronomer John Flannery first took an interest in the hobby as a child, space was a much cleaner place than it is in 2021.

Thanks to human activity, there are now hundreds of thousands of man-made objects ranging from satellites — some ‘live’ and some ‘dead’ — to tiny fragments of obsolete equipment floating around in low Earth orbit at last count.

It means that the incidence of defunct ‘space junk’ has increased at least seven-fold since the late 1970s and early 1980s.

And like the man-made pollution here on the ground, experts say that without corrective action from organisations like the European Space Agency (ESA), debris in the near-Earth orbit is only going to create more and more difficulties for human endeavour in space and possibly on the ground as well.

The ESA is planning to launch the world’s first clean-up mission of obsolete space tech in 2025.

But the increasing proliferation of satellites, regardless of life stage, is having an impact now.

“It certainly is a huge concern,” says Dublin-based Flannery, a member of the Irish Astronomical Society.

One issue, he explains, is the impact of light pollution on astrophotography and observation in general.

“Regularly, the images are crisscrossed by trails of light caused by satellites crossing over,” Flannery says.

Here, he’s speaking from recent experience. Earlier this month, Flannery and some of his colleagues were observing the Perseid meteor shower at Glendalough, Co Wicklow.

perseid An image of the Perseid meteor showe over Wexford earlier this month Source: Michael T. Martin

Occurring every year and visible to the naked eye, the Perseids are considered to be one of the clearest and most reliable meteor showers. 

During their observations, a commercial Starlink satellite — part of an internet communications network developed by Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX — appeared in the sky.

The satellite initially appeared quite faint, but then when it got to a certain point in the sky, it suddenly flared like sunlight. And that’s the problem. Satellites are coated in reflective material so sunlight bounces off them. That’s why you often see satellites in orbit.

Amateur astronomy is an unusual pursuit, Flannery says, because there’s a lot of “pro-am collaboration” between hobbyists and scientists.

“Professional astronomers might be focused on one particular aspect of study. Most amateurs make their own agenda,” he explains.

That means they’re sometimes well placed to make important discoveries. Take the case of Waterford-based amateur astronomer Keith Geary, who made a major contribution to the field through his own work on 8 August this year.

“He discovered an exploding star, essentially a nova that repeats roughly every 25 to 40 years,” Flannery says.

“It last erupted in 2006. And that discovery galvanised a number of observatories to monitor this particular star because it’s so rare to see a star in what’s called ‘outburst’; a very important stage in the star’s development.”

Telescope cameras

The impact of man-made pollution on this kind of work is one issue but Flannery says the “real problem is for the professional community”.

He explains, “Professional observatories are doing scientific research and suddenly their images are ruined by streaks of satellites crossing the field of view of their telescope cameras.

They reckon that about 40% of the images might have to be discarded from a new instrument that’s being constructed in Chile, called the Vera Rubin telescope.

The increase in man-made space objects is a more or less direct consequence of the rise of the private space industry.

Vera Rubin The under-construction Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile Source: Wil O'Mullane

There are a number of important milestones in this new space race but many point back to US President Barack Obama’s first term in office as its genesis.

In 2011, the Obama administration killed NASA’s space shuttle programme and ‘Project Constellation’, aimed at returning astronauts to the Moon.

Instead, the US would rely on commercially developed space vehicles for future missions, which opened up the field to the likes of Musk’s SpaceX as well as defence contractors like Boeing.

Since then, an ecosystem of private space companies have flourished, many of them focused on launching commercial communications satellites.

And from a situation in 2011 where just 129 objects were launched into space, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, over 1,200 satellites entered orbit in 2020 alone.

New opportunities and dangers

While private space endeavour is exciting and has opened up new opportunities, says Flannery, the downsides are clear.

SpaceX’s Starlink network alone could potentially comprise nearly 30,000 satellites once it’s fully operational, he explains.

Overall, Flannery says, some expect that the number of living and dead satellites in space could grow from over 7,000 in 2021 to 100,000 in 2030.

Aside from the light pollution issue, such an unregulated proliferation of objects could present very real challenges for human space flight.

For one, there are no clear, internationally agreed-upon rules around what happens to a satellite once it reaches the end of its life cycle or is decommissioned, Dr Klaus Merz, a space debris analyst with the European Space Agency, told The Journal.

All those dead objects floating around up there creates the potential for collisions. Collisions mean debris and debris in space — where even a fleck of paint can cause major damage to manned vehicles — presents significant dangers to astronauts and equipment.

Part of Dr Merz’s and the ESA’s job is helping to prevent collisions in the first place.

“With ESA, we are not doing this commercial business,” he says.

“Besides our interplanetary and scientific missions, we’re doing mainly Earth observation in low Earth orbit. There, we regularly have to fly avoidance manoeuvres.”

While these kinds of manoeuvres have been a feature of spaceflight since the 1990s, Dr Merz says the issue is an “ever-growing one”.

He explains, “There have been a few big events and smaller events that keep generating debris.

“So we had the Chinese anti-satellite test [in 2007] that created more than 2,000 fragments, which were large enough to be regularly tracked.”

There was also a major collision in 2009 between two Russian objects; a commercial communications satellite called Iridium 33 satellite and a defunct Kosmos military satellite.

Since then, Dr Merz says, operators and space agencies have begun to take the issue more seriously.

But their efforts are complicated by the fact that regulation-wise, private spaceflight is a bit of a Wild West at the moment, he explains.

There are a few space treaties from back in the 1960s, at the time of the Moon race and so on. And these basically defined states as actors being responsible for all the spaceflight that originates from their country.

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“Those states have also the duty to kind of supervise, what’s going on in their country. But they do it a bit according to their tastes” he adds.

If an incident involving two satellites causes damage on Earth, the law is clear and one state can sue another.

But if it happens in space, the rules are less clear, Dr Merz says.

“Again if you have commercials involved, those commercials can go only to their own government ask them to sue the government to get compensation. It’s always via the states,” he explains.

At the moment, “it’s kind of a quite theoretical threat”, according to Dr Merz. “But spaceflight is getting busier it might also turn into a real case at some point.”

Cleaning it up

The other plank of the ESA’s work on space debris relates to actually cleaning up the accumulated junk in the Earth’s orbit.

Again, this is work is more speculative than anything — no piece of debris has ever truly been cleaned up.

Some operators will use the last of the craft’s fuel to send into what’s called a ‘graveyard orbit’ away from the busier routes around the planet while others will propel the object towards Earth where it will burn up in the atmosphere.

But when it comes to actually removing the material, the technology simply isn’t there yet.

The ESA is hoping to change that with the world’s first mission to remove debris from Orbit.

The project, a public-private partnership with a Swiss start-up called ClearSpace, is due for launch in 2025.

“We see debris removal as a kind of a mixed commercial approach,” Dr Merz says, because it will involve “rendezvous, docking and lots of new technology, which should also be interesting for satellite servicing.

“So we think there will be a commercial market there, for example, refuel and repair missions.”

The hope, he says, is that private industry can “learn something for the future which they can also then market”.

Overall, when it comes to tightening the rules and preventing the build-up of space junk, Dr Merz believes that the world has reached the limits of what it can do in the current regulatory context.

For John Flannery, the amount of commercial interest in space is a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, the rise of space tourism has renewed the public’s interest in space.

“It’s really grabbed the imagination,” he says, “because people kind of feel like, gosh, even I have a chance of getting there. I don’t need to be a character from Top Gun or something.”

But with more and more commercial interest — including plans to fly advertising billboards into Earth’s orbit onboard a SpaceX shuttle in the near future — Flannery believes the danger of allowing space to be treated by humans have treated the planet itself should be obvious.

“Essentially, it’s robbing us of the sky,” he says.

“The sky is as much one of the wonders of the world as anything else. Really, it’s robbing us of our heritage — because it’s only in the last 50 years that we’ve kind of started to pollute it. But society developed through dependency on the sky.”

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