It appears that space is no exception to the rule that where we as humans go, so does the debris of our existence. Where stars stretch off into infinite space, there is sadly litter there too.Around 128 million human-made pieces of detritus with no remaining function are currently orbiting the Earth, from paint flecks to defunct spacecraft to rocket boosters. Of these, 2,300 are big enough to be tracked regularly by space surveillance networks according to the European Space Agency.Written by Nicole Junkermann (pictured)
Aside from the sad fact that humanity’s biggest impact on space to-date has been pollution, space junk also presents a physical danger to the technology and people we send up. Two large pieces of space junk recently had a close encounter 620 miles above Earth, a collision whose debris would have jeopardised satellites for decades. Meanwhile, the International Space Station has had to manoeuvre past debris three times this year. As a result, space missions increasingly incorporate shielding as solar panels and telescopes can be destroyed or damaged by even tiny debris. And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the unsettling possibility of large space junk falling to Earth without burning up.
The issue lies in the will to employ solutions, rather than tech innovation itself – and the sense of whose problem it really is. NASA notes that space junk is ‘no one country’s responsibility, but the responsibility of every spacefaring country’ – but if a problem is ‘everyone’s’ then the chances of any one country stepping up to take ownership (and costs) reduces greatly. Issues of authority also add to inertia – could a US company remove a defunct Chinese satellite without fear of an international incident?
In the end it may be commercial interests that really drive progress – with companies such as SpaceX and Amazon planning to launch thousands of satellites into orbit for broadband services, cleaning up the atmosphere will become increasingly pressing.
Most of the ideas under development focus on shooting, dragging or pushing debris into Earth’s atmosphere — where it then burns away – using everything from magnets and robots to foam, radio waves and even harpooning it into nets, an idea from RemoveDEBRIS, led by the UK’s Surrey Space Station. Research into preventing spacecrafts from becoming space junk in the first place is also underway, with projects such as Roccor’s atmospheric drag deorbit device – a drag sail for spacecraft that causes them to drop into the atmosphere and burn away after mission.
Futuristic as it sounds, much of the tech of this clean up ‘space-race’ could be rolled out in the next few years, as demand forces through more and more agile solutions. A collaboration between Austrian organisations and Silicon Valley will send satellite Adler-1 into orbit in 2021 – the first space debris tracker to orbit between 250 miles and 400 miles above Earth. Meanwhile, Switzerland-based start-up ClearSpace’s probe to grab space junk and take it to burn up in the atmosphere is slated for a 2025 lift off, and Japanese satellite communications company Sky Perfect’s laser-armed satellite, designed to alter the orbit of space debris so it falls into the atmosphere, launches in 2026.
It’s not light speed, granted. But it’s certainly a pace that finally says that tech means business when it comes to a space clean-up.
Nicole Junkermann is an international entrepreneur and investor, and the founder of NJF Holdings, an international investment company with interests in venture capital, private equity, and real estate. Through NJF’s venture capital arm (NJF Capital), Nicole oversees a portfolio similar in size to a small venture fund across Europe and the US, including in healthcare, fintech, and deep tech.