Guest contributor and spaceflight expert Lucy Rogers investigates the space debris problem and discusses how we could reduce, reuse and recycle.
We have been polluting space since Sputnik first orbited the Earth in 1957. For many years we have ignored it. It has now reached a stage where we can no longer do that.
Collisions between space debris and satellites threaten many of the systems we use in our daily lives, from financial transactions to weather reports, live television news reporting to air traffic control. If nothing is done soon, we will no longer have safe corridors to space, and critical low-Earth orbits will become unusable.
While coordinating a team working on techniques to reduce space debris and orbital collisions at Singularity University, Moffett Field, Calif., this summer, the question arose: what should we do with the debris?
We can't blow it up as it makes many more smaller, but just as lethal, pieces. Traveling at 17,000 mph even a fleck of paint can cause significant damage.
Many suggestions involved bringing the debris back down to Earth or allowing it to burn up in the atmosphere. But burning debris or returning it to the Earth is a waste of resources; it costs about $3,000 to send something as small as a can of Coke into space.
We need to use the same ideas we use here on Earth -- reduce, reuse and recycle. If we could move the debris to a safe "graveyard" orbit, we would have a resource in space, ready for future pioneers to take advantage of.
The "reduce" is already beginning to be implemented.
In 2008, the United Nations' Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) adopted space debris mitigation guidelines. The measures include designing satellites to withstand impacts and implementing operational procedures such as de-orbiting a satellite at the end of its life. Maneuvering to avoid collisions with debris is also recommended.
The potential for "reuse" is huge, but not yet feasible.
In the future, astronauts on Mars may need a certain type of material to fix, for example, their life support machines. Imagine if they could just go to a "scrap yard" of debris that had been removed from Earth Orbit and sent on a journey to the Red Planet, and take what was needed.
Entrepreneurs are already looking at ways to "recycle."
For example, Made In Space is a manufacturing company that uses 3D printing to print solid structures layer by layer to provide unique solutions for the aerospace industry. They aim to get this tested on the International Space Station soon. One day, they will be able to use space debris as raw materials for the objects they print.
There are many political and policy obstacles that need to be solved before progress can be made on reducing the amount of debris in orbit, however.
The recent US National Research Council report "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft," as reported by Discovery News on Friday, states: "Debris removal activity that involves selecting and removing any given object from space, crosses crucial national and international legal thresholds." It recommends that the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal be addressed.
Space debris is an exponentially growing threat, and one that will become catastrophic very quickly.
Suggestions for removing the debris include tethers and fishing nets but none of these technologies have yet to reach maturity. The use of high-energy lasers to move debris shows high potential, has a relatively short lead time and is something my team continues to work on.
Until now, the financial rewards for cleaning up space have not been obvious for commercial ventures to invest in the development of the required technologies.
However, as the problem grows, satellite operators, insurers and the downstream providers and users, such as those that produce and use Satellite Navigation and financial transaction services, will begin to wish something had been done earlier.
Whichever technologies that have been proved by then will have a very lucrative command of the market.
Lucy Rogers has a PhD in bubbles (fluid dynamics) and is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer. She is passionate about space and astronomy. She has realized that Space Debris is an exponentially growing problem and is committed to doing what she can to help solve it (SpaceDebrisResearch.com). She's a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. She is also a science writer, and turns science into plain English -- and is author of the book "It's ONLY Rocket Science - An Introduction in Plain English." Her website is LucyRogers.com. She successfully completed the Singularity University Graduate Studies Program 2011. She lives in the UK.