NASA ‘takes the threat of orbital debris seriously’, selects three mitigation proposals for funding

Space debris could snowball uncontrollably with the Kessler effect. NASA's new initiative aims to address the problem before it happens.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of space debris orbiting Earth.
An artist's impression of space debris orbiting Earth.

Source: ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL 

Is space exploration sustainable? Many experts, including SpaceX's Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, have argued it's crucial to the long-term survival of the human race.

But the issue's not completely black and white.

Case in point: NASA just announced a new push towards eradicating space debris in a bid to make space operations more sustainable, a blog post from the space agency reveals.

NASA has selected three research proposals from university-based research teams to receive funding over the coming year so as "to analyze the economic, social, and policy issues associated with space sustainability."

New space debris mitigation proposals

In its post, NASA highlights the three proposals that will receive funding. They are titled "Adaptive Space Governance and Decision-Support", "An Integrated Assessment Model for Satellite Constellations and Orbital Debris", and "Communication and Space Debris: Connecting with Public Knowledges and Identities".

The space agency announced it will release the teams’ results to the public on its website once they become available.

As NASA points out, space debris is comprised mainly of "human-made objects orbiting Earth that no longer serve a purpose, including mission-related and fragmentation debris, nonfunctional spacecraft, and abandoned rocket stages."

It's a well-researched and tracked problem, though some argue that not enough is currently being done to fight the problem. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are currently more than a hundred million space debris objects measuring between 1 mm and 1 cm in orbit.

A group of astronomers called The Astronomical Union Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference (IAU CPS), for example, has organized to combat the problem, and push for new legislation that will make private space companies more accountable for the machinery they lift into space.

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In an August interview with IE, Dr. Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada, explained that the worst-case scenario for space debris is Kessler syndrome — whereby a satellite or other object impacts another one and breaks into small pieces. This leads to a snowball effect as the small pieces then break up other space machinery into small pieces. Each collision then increases the likelihood of another until Earth's orbit is crowded with shiny bullet-like shards of space debris.

"The sky will just be full of little glimmers of light. Like being inside a snow globe within a couple hours of sunrise or sunset," Lawler said, adding that fixing the problem after it occurs would be comparable to "collecting bullets".

NASA 'takes the threat of orbital debris seriously'

Now, with its new announcement, NASA aims to address this growing concern. The U.S. space agency says it "takes the threat of orbital debris seriously as these objects can endanger spacecraft, jeopardize access to space, and impede the development of a low-Earth orbit economy, including commercial participation." As such, the "new awards will fund research that supports the agency’s commitment to address the problem."

Kessler syndrome was first proposed in 1978 by Donald J. Kessler, who was working at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, at the time. As points out, Kessler didn't take into account the possibility of new emerging technologies when he wrote that "any attempt to achieve a growth-free small debris environment by eliminating sources of past debris will likely fail because fragments from future collisions will be generated faster than atmospheric drag will remove them."

Still, skepticism remains. As Lawler told IE in August, she's yet to see a viable technology that could deal with such a massive-scale problem. And "there's no money in [space debris collection] right now, so it's not going to happen with a startup." Let's see if it happens in the wake of NASA's new funding proposal.

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