July 9, 2022 17:19
Scientists and start-ups in many countries are scrambling to work on projects to address the growing space debris problem.
The latest European Space Agency figures indicate that more than a million pieces of space debris larger than one centimeter in size, the remains of satellites or parts of rockets, are orbiting the Earth at high speeds.
This number is likely to rise proportionately with the emergence of “giant constellations” of satellites providing fast and widespread internet.
“We are entering an era of successive launches of large numbers of satellites, which will make space even more crowded,” said Miki Ito, director of Astroscale, a young Japanese company aiming to achieve sustainability in space.
“Simulations show that space will become unusable if we continue our operations in this way,” Ito adds. Therefore, the space environment needs to be improved before it is too late.
Accidents in space have been on the rise since a Chinese satellite disintegrated from an old Soviet one in January. Last year, a hole was recorded in the thermocouple of the International Space Station’s robotic arm, caused by a few millimeters of debris.
– “Cautions for access to waste”
“Small debris is a problem because there is no accurate information about it,” says Toru Yamamoto, a researcher at the Japanese Space Agency, adding that unlike large debris, names and its locations and speeds are subject to “continuous monitoring processes.”
Although there are rules outlining effective practices, such as directing obsolete satellites toward an “orbital graveyard,” these rules are insufficient, especially in the absence of an international text compelling authorities to adopt them legally.
Engineer Tadanori Fukushima of “Sky Perfect GaySat”, a Japanese company specializing in operating satellites, confirms that “one geosynchronous satellite receives 100 warnings of approaching debris annually.
Fukushima created a startup to solve this problem. A technology his company is still experimenting with is a laser beam that vaporizes the surface of space debris, creating a charge of energy that sends the debris into a different orbit.
Fukushima hopes to conduct the first test of this technology in space in the spring of 2025 in collaboration with several research institutes.
As for the Astroscale project, it is more advanced and is represented by a kind of “towing vehicle” that works based on magnets to pull out obsolete satellites.
The company succeeded in its first test last year, and plans to launch a second test by the end of 2024, partnering with the European Space Agency and British company OneWeb to launch satellites into low orbit. .
– “There is no universal cure”
Among the unusual solutions, there are wooden satellites, in which another Japanese team finds a solution to the problem of space debris, since wood is a material that completely disappears when the moon returns to Earth. The forest that the Sumitomo Forestry Group specializes in clearing is still in its infancy. In March, pieces of wood were sent to the International Space Station to test how the wood responds to cosmic rays.
According to Fukushima, other companies around the world are trying to tap into this growing market, which could actually start as early as 2030.
In late 2020, the European Space Agency signed a nearly $100 million deal with Swiss start-up ClearSpace to send the first commercial mission to clean debris from orbit in 2025.
American companies such as “Orbit Fab” and “Spice Logistics” (a subsidiary of the Northrop Grumman Group specializing in space and military industries), besides the Australian company “Numan Space”, are engaged in many satellite repair services. For example, to extend their service life by refueling in space.
Yamamoto sees the problem of space debris as so complex that a wide range of solutions is necessary, and that there is “no comprehensive solution” to the problem.
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