Currently, millions of pieces of space debris are orbiting earth at an average speed of 22,000 miles per hour, creating an environment where, according to NASA, “a 1 centimeter paint fleck is capable of inflicting the same damage as a 550 pound object traveling 60 miles per hour on earth.” This debris poses a threat to the 1,738 satellites currently in orbit which support critical modern communication, commerce, travel and security systems. Damage to any of these systems can have cascading impacts because of interdependencies that are invisible at first glance; for example, the GPS satellite system not only enables basic navigation, but also allows airlines to coordinate routing systems and provides timing synchronization for sectors such as banking, finance and power. Further, many modern military technologies such as guided missiles, drones, and intelligence collections would be limited or inoperable without functional satellite systems.

Picture of Earth surrounded by black dots representing space debris
Image of 19,000 pieces of Low Earth Orbit Space debris (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)

NASA and the Department of Defense Space Surveillance Network currently track about 21,000 pieces of debris in Low Earth and Geosynchronous Orbit, although the most dangerous pieces of debris are the millions that are too small to track. Multiple trends, including the growing usage of small satellites, the growth of private sector investment in space exploration, and the development of anti-satellite military technologies are fueling the growth of space debris. Testing of anti-satellite missiles by China and the United States has resulted in thousands of new fragments in space due to the collision of missiles with target objects. Another major example of where this debris originates from was a collision between a communications satellite owned by the Iridium corporation and an abandoned Russian communication satellite, which resulted in 2,300 new pieces of shrapnel. The development of small and cheap satellites, such as the popular $40,000 4-inch CubeSAT, has led to the proliferation of satellites sent by students, companies, and researchers; SpaceX has taken advantage of this technology to request permission from the FCC to launch 12,000 small satellites into Low Earth Orbit. Long-term growth in space debris creates two major risks; first, that space debris could potentially create unusable regions of orbit due to pollution. Further, there is a growing risk of the onset of the Kessler Syndrome, which occurs when collisions continually create more debris which results in more collisions, creating a positive feedback loop and eventually resulting in new collisions even with no new launches in orbit.

Efforts to improve satellite resilience against space debris can be challenging due to the global nature of space exploration, meaning that cleaning debris requires international collaboration. Currently, efforts are being undertaken by both governments and some private sector companies. For example, former President George W. Bush attempted to create a terrestrial GPS system known as eLoran; this program was cancelled in 2008 due to budget cuts under the Obama administration. In terms of regulations, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs has issued seven guidelines in an attempt to mitigate the amount of debris in space, with most of the guidelines advising to generally limit harmful activities such as avoiding intentional destruction. Private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing have also acknowledged the threat space debris poses to their own equipment and an industry is developing around tracking debris and selling that information to satellite operators.

Sources and Further Reading:

  1. What Would Happen If All Our Satellites Were Suddenly Destroyed? – Gizmodo
  2. There’s a Speeding Mass of Space Junk Orbiting Earth, Smashing Into Things – Wall Street Journal
  3. Space Debris: Understanding the Risks to NASA Spacecraft – NASA
  4. Space Debris and Human Spacecraft – NASA
  5. UCS Satellite Database – Union of Concerned Scientists
  6. Micrometeoroids and Orbital Debris (MMOD) – NASA
  7. The Outer Space Treaty and states’ obligation to remove space debris: a US perspective – The Space Review
  8. The entire global financial system depends on GPS, and it’s shockingly vulnerable to attack – Quartz
  9. Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – UN Office for Outer Space Affairs
  10. SpaceX and OneWeb broadband satellites raise fears about space debris – ArsTechnica
  11. Private firms spy a market in spotting space junk – Nature