Satellites Are Crowding Space, and It’s Time for a Cleanup Plan
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Earth’s atmosphere has become home to almost 5,000 orbiting spacecraft. Yet despite the growing traffic, there’s been only one documented collision between satellites, when an Iridium communications craft and a dead Russian Kosmos spysat crashed 500 miles above Siberia a decade ago.
The risks are increasing fast, though. In the coming decade, tens of thousands of new satellites are scheduled for launch as billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson plan constellations of craft offering internet from space. Worse, debris such as old rocket parts, out-of-service satellites, and bits of shrapnel—the Iridium-Kosmos crash created thousands of pieces that will litter the skies for decades—represent a growing threat.
The U.S. Air Force tracks more than 20,000 bits of space junk orbiting the Earth, and that number is rapidly expanding. Insurers say the risk of a collision for satellites has jumped from one in a million to one in 10,000 over the past two decades—but there’s little agreement about how to fix the problem. Without stricter regulations to decrease the danger of a smashup, “it’s getting to the point where investment in space could be questionable,” says Nik Smith, director of Lockheed Martin Space UK.
There’s little regulation of outer space, and satellite owners can pick their own orbits as long as their radio signals don’t interfere with other users. If a spacecraft changes course, it sometimes gets noticed by amateur astronomers, but no central body keeps track. The risk has spurred efforts to sell satellite insurance, technology that can better track spacecraft and smaller objects, and plans for orbiters akin to giant brooms that can help clean up the skies. Less debris “is in everybody’s interest,” says Sa’id Mosteshar, a London attorney who works on space-related issues. “But the industry can’t quite come to terms with having an internationally binding regime.”
While monitoring is getting more accurate, warning systems can predict a satellite’s trajectory only to within a few miles as solar radiation and atmospheric drag make orbits slightly wobbly. After the Kosmos crash, Iridium said it had had no way of predicting the collision. And today’s systems generate hundreds of warnings that turn out to be near misses, reducing the value of the information. The U.S. military is testing what it calls the “Space Fence,” debris-sensing radar on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific that uses an updated technology to track more than 200,000 objects.
For decades, the U.S. and Europe have advocated a framework for managing space traffic along the lines of the Chicago Convention of 1944, which laid down rules for the global airline industry. In 1972 the United Nations agreed to a treaty pinning liability for any damage from a satellite on the state that launched it, though that’s not much use if a spacecraft is hit by debris from an unknown source. In 2002 more than a dozen countries established “end-of-life” guidelines obliging satellite owners to set aside fuel reserves to fling orbiters farther out into deep space or steer them back into Earth’s atmosphere, where they burn up on reentry. Otherwise they risk ending up like the European Space Agency’s 8-ton Envisat, which didn’t have enough fuel to be nudged one way or the other and has been in free orbit since 2012, posing a collision hazard for up to 150 years.
One solution for such problems is spacecraft that could shove dead satellites out of orbit using robotic arms, nets, or harpoons—though that can be difficult because orbiting items often rotate, and grabbing them can pull the cleanup craft into an uncontrollable spin. Marshall Kaplan, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, says collecting smaller bits of space junk is more important, because it represents more than 90% of collision risk. “A lot of satellites have all of a sudden gone black, and people don’t know why,” says Kaplan. “I suspect it’s debris.” He’s proposing a $20 billion system of spacecraft that scoop up bits of junk—a bargain, he says, compared with the soaring rates for collision insurance if nothing is done about the problem.
A single smashup could create a vast field of debris, prompting a cascade of collisions that might render the entire satellite belt unusable. NASA says a 4-inch piece of shrapnel in low-Earth orbit has the force of 15 pounds of TNT, enough to shatter a spacecraft into thousands of pieces. And as numbers grow—Musk’s SpaceX wants to launch 42,000 refrigerator-size spacecraft to provide worldwide internet service—there’s a greater risk of breakdowns. Three of the 60 SpaceX units launched in May never responded to commands from Earth, so they can’t be removed from orbit. The industry got a wake-up call on Sept. 2 when the European Space Agency fired thrusters on its Aeolus observation craft to avoid colliding with a SpaceX orbiter. Musk’s company acknowledges that satellite providers must get better at communicating, but it says there’s no need for greater regulation.
Insurance providers, meanwhile, are seeking to build a business covering the growing collision risks for these new spacecraft, which could offset revenue lost as big operators such as SES, Intelsat, and Eutelsat launch fewer large orbiters. While fewer than 10% of the new smaller satellites are underwritten, this will likely change if operators seek bank financing rather than sell shares to venture capitalists, says Pascal Lecointe, head of space policies at insurer Hiscox Ltd. “The bank will say, ‘Please go ahead, but make sure you’ve got coverage,’ ” he predicts. “It’s only a matter of time before this new space industry sees insurance as a useful way to transfer risk.”
Read more: A Family-Owned German Satellite Company Wants to Launch Rockets as Well
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