Stop crowding earth’s orbital environment: ESA report

The problem of space debris would worsen even if we sent nothing else into orbit.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of space debris.jpg
Representational image of space debris.


ESA’s Space Environment report 2023 was published last August and highlighted a key problem: space debris.

“Our planet is surrounded by spacecraft carrying out important work to study our changing climate, deliver global communication and navigation services and help us answer important scientific questions,” noted the report.

“But some of their orbits are getting crowded and increasingly churning with deadly, fast-moving pieces of defunct satellites and rockets that threaten our future in space.”

Human-made items in space

Space debris refers to abandoned human-made items in space that can range in size from tiny paint flakes to complete rocket stages and defunct satellites. Due to their propensity to collide with active spacecraft, these items pose a significant hazard for space missions and satellite operations.

If left unsupervised, they can cause damage and lead to the creation of further debris in what is a cascading worsening effect. Due to their kinetic energy, even little particles can significantly damage active and useful space objects currently in operation.

Various orbits around earth are filled with space junk, including the geostationary orbit (GEO), the low earth orbit (LEO), and the medium earth orbit (MEO). The LEO, in particular, boasts many functioning satellites as well as debris.

ESA’s report noted that “of the more than 30 000 individual pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm currently identified, more than half of them litter low-earth orbit.”

Space agencies regularly monitor space debris using ground-based radar and optical tracking systems. In addition, there are numerous international standards and recommended practices in place to reduce the creation of new space debris. These include actions like deorbiting satellites when their missions are complete and creating spacecraft with little fragmentation.

“Space debris mitigation guidelines state that satellites should vacate protected orbits within 25 years after their use has come to an end,” noted ESA.

A worsening problem

It may be natural to assume that one solution to this problem would be to stop sending things into space. However, ESA noted that this would not resolve the current situation.

“Even if we launched nothing from now on, collisions among the space debris objects already in orbit would cause the problem to get worse,” explained the space agency.

According to a theoretical scenario known as the Kessler Syndrome, when space debris density reaches a particular level in some orbital zones, it causes a cascade of collisions that result in the creation of even more debris. This might prevent the use of entire orbital regions.

ESA, therefore, argued for stricter space debris regulations, including the implementation of a variety of new technologies such as harpoons, nets, and electrodynamic tethers developed for the particular removal of space debris. 

As space operations continue to expand, space agencies, organizations, and researchers are actively striving to reduce the threats posed by space debris and develop plans for the sustainable use of earth's orbital environment. If not appropriately tackled, this problem could result in diminished space for our new satellites and hindered space missions. Will new laws and technological advancements be enough to thwart this issue or will our space environments remain overcrowded?