Colliding Space Clutter
In the movie WALL-E, the Earth is surrounded by a dense field of orbiting junk. The problem of space debris is not that bad yet, but is potentially heading in that direction. A new report released by the National Research Council says the problem of space debris is getting worse and has passed a “tipping point.” The report says that while NASA has done a good job using their available resources to research the issue, decreased funding and increased responsibilities for the space agency is not a good combination for the future, and NASA has not been able to keep pace with increasing hazards posed by abandoned equipment, spent rocket bodies, and other debris orbiting the Earth.
From the new report, it appears the Kessler Syndrome is not just an abstract event that might occur in the future. It’s happening now. The amount of debris is now growing exponentially, as just two collisions since January 2007 has doubled the total number of debris fragments in Earth’s orbit, according to the NRC report.
NASA had asked for the report; specifically, NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance, Bryan O’Connor, asked the NRC in 2010 to independently examine the agency’s work on debris.
“We thank the National Research Council for their thorough review in this report,” said NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey. “We will study their findings and recommendations carefully and use them to advise our future actions in this important area of work.”
For example, NASA should initiate a new effort to record, analyze, report, and share data on spacecraft anomalies. This will provide additional knowledge about the risk from debris particulates too small to be cataloged under the current system yet large enough to potentially cause damage.
The report also suggests more work internationally on this problem, since it is a global problem caused by other nations besides the US. Over the past decade and a half, the world’s major space agencies have been developing a set of orbital debris mitigation guidelines aimed at stemming the creation of new space debris and lessening the impact of existing debris on satellites and human spaceflight. Most agencies are in the process of implementing or have already implemented these voluntary measures which include on-board passive measures to eliminate latent sources of energy related to batteries, fuel tanks, propulsion systems and pyrotechnics.
But the growing number of developing countries that are launching using satellites, and they need to be encouraged to use these measures as well.
In addition, NASA should lead public discussion of orbital debris and emphasize that it is a long-term concern for society that must continue to be addressed.
Congress also needs to be aware of the problem and provide adequate funding for the issue.
You can read the report here. (free as a pdf download).