The ESA avert disaster with a close-call satellite space debris evasion

The space debris problem continues to get worse.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of ESA's Swarm satellites.ESA/P. Carril

The European Space Agency's Swarm mission was designed to study the Earth's magnetic field via three satellites orbiting our planet.

News has just emerged that this small satellite constellation had a close shave with space debris — an increasingly regular problem for space operations, and one that is only likely to get worse.

ESA's Swarm satellite evasion

The Swarm constellation had to make a maneuver on short notice to avoid a potential collision. Alongside their report on Swarm, the ESA announced each of its many satellites — not only Swarm — has had to make two collision avoidance maneuvers a year, on average.

In fact, the Swarm constellation was already climbing away from another threat when it had to make the recent short-notice maneuver. When ground control was alerted that their system might collide with space debris, two of the three satellites were climbing to a higher altitude to prevent potentially catastrophic damage from the sun.

As the sun approaches the active peak of its eleven-year cycle it has been sending massive solar flares towards Earth. These have the potential to damage space equipment such as satellites. In a worst-case scenario, they could even cause a global internet outage due to the fact that undersea internet cables are vulnerable to the geomagnetically induced currents of solar storms.

This extra solar activity increases the density of the atmosphere where the satellites orbit. This causes them to slow down, requires them to use more fuel, and increases the likelihood that they will drag and reenter Earth's atmosphere in a ball of flames.

The ESA, therefore, was making its Swarm satellites climb — a process that would take 10 weeks in total. During this drawn-out process, ESA detected, on June 30, a large chunk of space trash that was potentially only eight hours away from colliding with its satellites. Typically satellite operations have a much longer time to plan an evasion maneuver. Still, ESA planned and carried out the evasive maneuver in a matter of four hours, allowing the satellites to continue climbing the next day.

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The growing problem of space debris

Though the evasive maneuver was successful, it highlights the danger of space debris for satellite and space operations. If ESA hasn't been successful in its evasion maneuver, it could have sparked a cascade of collisions known as Kessler Syndrome. This is when two objects in orbit collide, creating more space debris that collides with other objects, filling the upper atmosphere with tiny pieces of space debris.

Astronomers are warning that this outcome is increasingly likely with the continued launch of satellite mega-constellations such as Starlink. Even NASA has warned that these satellites, and others, could impede "our planet's ability to detect and possibly redirect a potentially catastrophic impact" from a previously undetected near-Earth asteroid. With massive new satellite launches scheduled, such as Amazon's Project Kuiper contract for 83 launches, the Kessler Effect will be increasingly harder to prevent.

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