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SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

Space debris: More storm clouds ahead in orbit, experts say

Clutter in the cosmos.
Clutter in the cosmos. (Image credit: Used with permission: Melrae Pictures/Space Junk 3D)

Russia now admittedly carried out a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile mission that took out its own spacecraft, reducing to rubble Cosmos 1408 — a more-than-2-ton Tselina-D spysat that launched into orbit in 1982.

On Nov. 15, the defunct spacecraft was shattered, generating a storm cloud of space debris that, according to some estimates, totals 1,500 chunks of junk big enough to be tracked. 

But the impact doubtless created many more pieces of space debris too tiny to detect from the ground. Who knows how much detritus from the Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) test is actually floating around up there?

Related: The worst space debris events of all time

The hole created when a piece of orbital debris hit the Solar Maximum Mission satellite, or SolarMax. (Image credit: NASA)

Glitches and gotchas

Some satellites could potentially fall victim to Cosmos 1408 scraps in the days, weeks, months and years to come. Spacecraft operators may encounter head-scratching glitches and gotchas that could very well stem from encounters with those ASAT-produced odds and ends.

What to do about orbital debris is now a daily topic of conversation and concern within the space community. Lots of "debris cleaning" ideas are being floated. However, at the end of the day, is it all too little, too late? 

There's also the Kessler Syndrome to consider — a debris cascade sparked by in-orbit collisions that may already be taking place.

Was the Russian ASAT test an alarming wakeup call that serves as a tipping point to get everyone onboard to deal with space waste? Space.com contacted leading experts to weigh in on the worrisome situation of space debris.

Related: Space debris images & cleanup concepts (photos)

Spacecraft breakups in Earth orbit have been recorded since 1961. Most were explosions of satellites and upper stages rather than accidental or intentional collisions. (Image credit: ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Unfortunate event

"Unfortunately, I don't think this event is really the thing that is going to push people into action," said Moriba Jah, a space debris expert at the University of Texas at Austin. "It certainly raises the bar. It's still unbelievable that this happened. There's no evidence that there will be any repercussions … no consequences that would basically ban people from doing this in the future. This is a very unfortunate event."

Jah asks, How do we persuade humans to embrace stewardship of space as if our lives depended on it? With a growing number of commerce-producing satellite networks, the increasing volume of space rubble is sure to be a long-time, bothersome issue.

Indeed, there's SpaceX's Starlink internet megaconstellation, which might eventually consist of 40,000 satellites. Amazon aims to assemble a 3,200-satellite broadband constellation of its own, and California launch startup Astra recently filed an application with the FCC for its gaggle of 13,600 satellites. Other companies are eying similar constellations.

"If I'm an investor, perhaps I would feel a bit nervous knowing that my investment is at risk by somebody blowing something up, and there are no consequences," Jah said.

"Space is a global resource," Commissioner Nathan Simington of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said in a statement. "But we do know at least one thing: orbital debris fields pose an existential threat," making the work of using space complicated and difficult.  

"No one owns space. And no one should intentionally make it more difficult to use," Simington said. "I join my colleagues across the whole of the U.S. government in condemning the irresponsible, debris-generating destruction of a satellite by Russia."

In-orbit explosions can be related to the mixing of residual fuel that remains in tanks or fuel lines once a rocket stage or satellite is discarded in Earth orbit. The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of sizes and speeds. (Image credit: ESA)

Wanted: cultural change

We, as a society, did not create the orbital debris problem overnight, and we won't fix it overnight, either, said T.S. Kelso, a leading space debris expert with CelesTrak.

"Just like any other environmental issue; it will take all of us working together in a dedicated fashion to address the problem. We should not be paralyzed by indecision searching for the perfect solution," Kelso told Space.com.

Kelso advised that the simplest thing that can be done — by all of us — is to change our attitudes about what we send into and leave in orbit. The notion that "space is a big place" and that we can simply leave our trash there was never true, any more than it is for our oceans or our atmosphere

"We should only launch what we need to launch and work to ensure that we remove any traces of that as soon as its mission is over," Kelso said. "This cultural change is needed now more than ever as we see launch rates increasing rapidly. It is far easier, and cheaper, to prevent polluting Earth orbit than it will be to remediate later."

Act now!

For the past two decades, many operators have realized the importance of working together to share data to help avoid collisions in orbit. 

"We need more of that, and to encourage countries or companies sitting on the sidelines to join the effort, since we are all in this together. And we need operators of space surveillance systems — both government and commercial — to find ways to share more data," Kelso said. "We need to move past the point of operators using different data — whether by choice or by necessity — and then coming to different conclusions, before that results in another avoidable collision."

Kelso believes that there's a need to encourage industry to find ways to remove some of the junk that's already in orbit. 

"This will take multinational support and financial incentives to develop, test and implement effective techniques. This task won't be easy, but we need government support and commercial innovation to make it happen, and there are many companies out there eager to take on this challenge," Kelso said. "The longer we wait to take action, the more difficult the task becomes — and the direr the consequences. We need to act now!"

One of the things we could do to prevent making the on-orbit debris situation worse, Kelso concluded, "would be to stop intentionally creating any kind of debris in orbit." Given the recent Russian ASAT activity, "I naively thought we were past that point, but apparently not," he said.

Related: The most dangerous space weapons of all time

Fundamental gaps

Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in England, doesn't think that the recent destruction of Cosmos 1408 is quite an "aha" moment, "but it should certainly motivate us to address the fundamental gaps in our knowledge and to set expectations about responsible behaviors in the space environment."

Even as there has been a lot of talk about space sustainability in the last few weeks and a few initiatives have been announced, Lewis said, "I think we still lack a fundamental understanding and agreement of what we want to achieve and how we make it happen."

Lewis said that we need a moment, perhaps some sort of shared global experience and corresponding insight, that drives us forward. "That's something that happened with the climate crisis and the great focusing of effort during events such as the COP [Conference of the Parties] meetings."

Upfront concerns

It looks like Russia has now adopted the "kinetic kill" type of ASAT, experts say. The Soviet Union first tested an ASAT in 1978, quickly realizing the military possibilities in space. It wasn't until 1985 that the U.S. performed an ASAT test that created a significant debris hazard, said Donald Kessler, who retired from NASA in 1996 as the agency's senior scientist for orbital debris research. The Kessler Syndrome is named after him.

"National defense requires that we have an anti-satellite system, and I've recommended that the original Soviet 'shotgun' type of test be adopted by the U.S. since there is little, if any, increase in the debris hazard," Kessler told Space.com.

That being the case, Kessler said his upfront concern is this: "There are much more important issues than orbital debris. We need to be more concerned about climate change, a pandemic and the increasing violence in our society, all of which are subject to an exponential increase and also have a 'tipping point,' just like the equations used to describe the orbital debris hazard," he said.

Kessler said the difference is that many of the things we can do in space can also be performed with ground systems, but they will become increasingly expensive because of other important issues.

Clogging up the environment

Carolin Frueh, an associate professor at the School of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Purdue University, is also grappling with the implications of orbital debris. She also doesn't sense that the Russian ASAT affair will be the clarion call for dealing with space junk.

Frueh underscored the need to use space in a sustainable manner. "If we are doing nothing, or don't care about these things, then we are clogging up that environment. Some argue that you reach a physically unusable point."

If we're clogging up Earth orbit more and more, Frueh said, the effects of collisions are much more severe because the pieces can hit a lot more satellites. Anti-satellite tests, she said, are especially annoying because "that's creating space debris at leisure."

On one hand, there is real danger of the Kessler cascading effect: There are more objects circuiting Earth, so there could be more collisions, creating even more debris. 

Economic concern

But Frueh said she doesn't think that this circumstance is particularly likely. Rather, the researcher senses a more pressing problem: as more debris has accumulated in orbit, the cost of shielding satellites has increased.

Overall, the Kessler Syndrome is one thing, but the problem is far more complicated. Trying to deal with orbital debris is of economic concern, Frueh said.

"Spacecraft operations have to make so many maneuvers, or you need so much shielding, then it becomes non-economically feasible in order to be a spacefaring entity," Frueh said. 

Pressures are mounting on all the "NewSpace" constellations to take better collision avoidance steps. "So I think that is also an accelerator for mitigation measures. There's stress on the system, because we're jumping so much closer to the critical densities that the [space] environment can allow," Frueh said.

Despite such concerns, Frueh remains optimistic. "What makes me hopeful is that many entities are realizing that we cannot ignore the problem anymore. It's more urgent than ever. You can't be complacent."

Leonard David is author of the book "Moon Rush: The New Space Race," published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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Leonard David

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.