Nawaz: The problem with space debris is reaching mission critical



Unless we start cleaning up our mess, space junk will pose an increasing threat to satellites and eventually make low Earth orbit unusable.

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These days, you don’t need to be Chicken Little to have grave concerns about the state of the world.

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Extreme storms in British Columbia recently dropped a month’s worth of rain in just a few days, causing severe flooding and a fatal landslide. In Egypt, heavy rain led to deadly destruction in the southern city of Aswan and swept hundreds of deathstalker scorpions from their desert burrows into surrounding villages, where they stung more than 500 people in a single night. And after last week’s Russian anti-satellite missile test, which added a huge amount of debris to the already crowded low Earth orbit, you could be forgiven for wondering what new disaster might come falling out of the sky.

After all, the sky — specifically low Earth orbit — is home to nearly 6,000 tonnes of material. This includes millions of pieces of space junk, fewer than 30,000 of which are large enough to be tracked by the Space Surveillance Network. Have you ever heard the myth about how a penny dropped from the top of the CN Tower could kill someone? It couldn’t (mostly because of air resistance), but a penny flying around in space would be a totally different story. In low Earth orbit, objects whip around so fast — at speeds up to 28,000 kilometres per hour — that even tiny flecks of paint have been known to damage spacecraft.

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The problem of space junk is a growing concern as more and more satellites are launched every year. As of this fall, there were nearly 8,000 satellites in space, with slightly more than half of them active and operational. SpaceX alone plans to send up 42,000 satellites over the next several decades for its Starlink network, which aims to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the globe.

But with each launch comes some incidental detritus, and planned destructions create even more space junk. In addition to Russia’s recent test, the United States, China and India have all used missiles to destroy their own satellites. Then there are accidental collisions, such as the 2009 crash of a working commercial Iridium satellite and a derelict Russian military unit, which added more than 2,300 traceable shards to space along with countless pieces of smaller debris.

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According to the Kessler syndrome, named after the NASA scientist who put forward the theory in 1978, more and more space junk means an ever-greater probability of collisions. This would, in turn, engender more debris and further collisions until a tipping point is reached and collisions increase faster than atmospheric drag can pull objects out of orbit. At that point, low Earth orbit could become completely unusable.

And since nobody can hear you scream in space, nobody can yell at you to pick up your trash — or at least, not very effectively. There are no international laws governing the cleanup of space, only guidelines, and not everyone complies. Like the ocean, space is turning out to be a tragedy of the commons. Not to mention that space is increasingly dominated by private industry, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for responsible behaviour.

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Nevertheless, some people are working on the problem. Projects like RemoveDEBRIS, out of the University of Surrey, and the Japanese startup Astroscale have been running experimental missions over the past few years to demonstrate the potential effectiveness of different space junk removal methods, including via net, harpoon and magnetic retrieval. And in 2025, the European Space Agency, in partnership with a Swiss startup called ClearSpace, plans to launch the first official cleanup mission of its kind, using a four-armed robot.

A Montreal startup called NorthStar Earth & Space Inc. is also poised to be part of the solution, having raised more than $80 million from investors for its space monitoring and traffic management system. In 2022, they plan to launch Skylark, a constellation of 12 satellites fitted with optical sensors, followed by the subsequent launch of an additional 40 satellites to enhance Skylark and provide better Earth observation capabilities. According to NorthStar’s website, Skylark will be able to offer more accurate assessments and predictions than ground-based monitoring systems can currently provide.

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Space has become such a profitable sector that it might get cleaned up faster than the ocean, but it’s still uncertain whether that will happen before the Kessler syndrome kicks in. As for whether or not the sky is falling, nobody has been killed by plummeting space debris yet. But low Earth orbit collisions can still have dire consequences here on the ground, with the potential for serious impacts on navigation, security, banking and other critical systems, not to mention communications and the internet.

And if the Wi-Fi goes out, it really will feel like the apocalypse.

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