The numbers are staggering. That’s understandable. We have been launching satellites and other craft into orbit around the Earth since October 1957. And it’s not just the satellites; it’s the booster rockets and other junk that goes along with a launch that you have to consider too.
NASA claims that there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris or space junk being tracked as they tumble above the Earth. Up to now no one was willing to stand up and take responsibility to get rid of all of that junk.
Finally, the European Space Agency (ESA) has stepped up. It has set a goal to rid the space around mother Earth of derelict satellites. An actual mission proposal is being readied for distribution to European ministers next year.
Called eDeorbit, the mission is being developed under ESA’s Clean Space Initiative. The program would target ESA’s derelict satellites, capture them, and then release them into a controlled atmospheric reentry to safely burn away.
So far, the agency plans to fly multiple missions per year and eDeorbit is being designed with recurring flights in mind.
eDeorbit has completed its Phase A preliminary analysis that began in January 2014 and many aspects of the mission have already been finalized. Now things are progressing to Phase B1, which will take the mission to a point where it is ready to be built. All that is needed now is approval from the agency’s Council of Ministers in December 2016 setting up a launch in 2021.
Plans now call for the adaptation of a Vega rocket upper stage into a platform for a capture system. A proposal to harpoon the debris has been shelved for now in favor of the use of robotic arms or nets.
Studies are underway for a concurrent design facility in which extensive simulations will be done to develop standard case and off nominal cases of ways to capture the debris.
The next milestone of the eDeorbit Mission will be a system requirements review scheduled for May – June 2016.
Meanwhile, ESA is working with satellite designers and builders to develop regulations concerning space debris. It is requesting ideas for the construction of the next generation low-orbit satellite platforms that will mitigate space debris while enhancing platform performance and competitiveness.
ESA notes that low orbits up to 2,000 km above the Earth is the most highly congested region of space. It is widely used for Earth observation and some types of telecom satellites. According to ESA, the growing population of debris is a clear and present danger to future missions. For example, a satellite moving at multiple kilometers per second struck by a 1-centemeter nut can be damaged with the force of a hand grenade.
A growing number of countries have introduced regulations to limit the production of fresh debris within a protected low orbit. The concept is for satellites to typically be brought down or boosted out to give them an added 25 years of life while reducing the risk of people being hit with debris on the ground. The crafts also need to be pacified by removing leftover propellant and powering down batteries to avoid explosions.
Changes in the design and construction of future satellites can include propulsion for deorbiting or reorbiting to ensure satellites will definitely burn up in the atmosphere or drag augmentation devices including sales, and propulsion and power passivation.
A CleanSat workshop in March 2016 will begin discussions among industry players. Industry is invited to propose its own building blocks for follow-up study. The results will be included in a CleanSat plan for consideration by ESA’s Ministers Council in late 2016.
ESA has promised to use these building blocks in its own future missions once they are ready.