Problem of #SpaceDebris and the EU

In almost 60 years of space activities starting with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, more and more space debris is released into Earth orbit. But what is ‘space debris’ and where did it come from? How did we get it spinning around our planet? Does it affect human life and if so what are the measures being taken to reduce it, writes Margarita Chrysaki, a Brussels-based political analyst.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA) space debris is defined “as all the inactive, manmade objects, including fragments, that are orbiting Earth or reentering the atmosphere”. These inactive artificial objects are parts of retired satellites e.g. the upper stages of launch vehicles or discarded bits left over from separation.  Travelling up to 17,500 miles per hour, these uncontrolled “29,000 objects larger than 10 cm, 750,000 from 1 to 10 cm, and more than 166 million from 1 mm to 1 cm” as ESA underlines, can collide with other objects. The fragments being generated from the collision will bring a chain reaction, known as the Kessler Syndrome.

During the 7th European Conference on space debris organized by ESA on 18-21 April in Darmstadt, Germany, Holger Krag, the head of unit of ESA Space Debris Office gave his insight into this self-sustaining cascading collision of space debris in a low Earth orbit: “It is not compared with a gunshot. The energy contained in a 1cm particle hitting a satellite of that velocity roughly corresponds to an exploding grenade.”  However space debris not only put at risk satellites infrastructures, but has also been a threat for the crew taking part in space missions. It is worth mentioning that the International Space Station performs avoidance space debris manoeuvres every year. 

Back on Earth, there have been a few cases where parts of retired satellites have destroyed human property and even posed a danger to human life. In addition to this, satellites have become an indispensable part of our daily routine and any damages caused by this uncontrolled junk could disrupt services such as the weather forecast, telecommunications and other important applications.

With regards to the actions taken to the problem of space debris in Europe, through qpace surveillance programmes, it is possible to detect, catalogue and predict these objects on time and place with great accuracy. Also, a set of space debris mitigation and remediation actions is one of the priorities in the EU Space policy agenda. ESA is investigating ways to eliminate or remove large inactive particles from the most populated orbits which are the source of generating new debris.

Though guidelines to protect the near Earth space do exist, most of the time they are not applied. Guidelines such as changing some of the satellite’s components that will not produce any debris at the end of its mission are rarely applied, due to the high cost for the preparation of such technologies. Therefore, EU should actively interact with all international players of the space sector. As a result, it will set the stage for the development of mostly updated guidelines for an active control and sustainable management of the space debris environment.


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