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Written by: Jordan Olliges
Written on: July 17th, 2009
Tags: aerospace engineering
Thumbnail by: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office
About the Author
In summer 2009, Jordan Olliges was a senior majoring in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California. He plans to continue his education at USC with a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Design before pursuing a career in launch vehicle development.
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Volume XI Issue I > The Impact of Orbital Debris

International Mitigation Efforts

Even though orbital vehicles are becoming an essential part of many countries’ national infrastructure, the majority of the hazardous debris in orbit is created by a select few. As of January 1, 2008, the three leading offenders were China, the United States, and Russia. The People’s Republic of China accounts for nearly half of all debris orbiting the Earth, largely in part to the Fengyun-1C’s intentional destruction. However, a large issue with orbital debris is how its impact extends beyond the country of origin and affects the entire world.
Due to the nature of objects in Low Earth Orbit, one country’s orbital pollution contaminates space for the entire international community. Unlike geostationary orbit, where a satellite stays positioned directly above a single point on the Earth’s surface, the shorter periods of satellites in LEO result in them outpacing the Earth’s rotation. With all low orbiting objects encircling the entire globe, there is no way to only clear up the sky above a certain country.
To address the growing orbital debris hazards to every countries’ satellites, the international space community brought a renewed fervor for mitigating space debris generation after the Fengyun-1C ASAT test. There has been extensive thought supplied by the world’s space programs towards finding a way to remove trash from orbit, but as the Chief Scientist for NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, Nicholas Johnson, said, the space community hasn't "found a single concept which is both technically feasible and economically viable" [15]. Some of the more exotic ideas that have surfaced include using ground or space-based lasers to push the orbiting trash into lower orbits or even launching a mile-wide NERF ball in the hopes that debris impacting it would slow down enough to drop altitude and disintegrate in the atmosphere. Because these concepts have not proved practical, the mitigation effort has focused less on cleaning up what is already in orbit and more on preventing the production of future space debris. Even though this is a limited approach to debris mitigation, it is a step in the right direction by the space community.
In February 2007, the United Nation's Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space developed a set of guidelines to be followed by "member states and international organizations" to help tackle current and future issues with debris generation [16]. The committee found that space debris mitigation could be separated into two general categories: first, restricting new debris production by curtailing the waste coming off of current missions to prevent future fragmentation events, and second, creating end-of-life procedures for removing spacecraft and launch vehicle stages from populated orbital regimes. The issued guidelines focused not only on minimizing the potential for satellite breakups and debris released during normal operations, but called for a stop to intentional satellite destruction and for countries to moderate the lifetime of decommissioned satellites in populated orbital regions [16]. The guidelines require that a satellite include excess propellant on board to send the spacecraft into a less populated orbit at the end of its mission, thus diminishing its chances for a collision.
Even with a global commitment to debris mitigation efforts, the hazards of orbital fragments have not been mollified. On February 11, 2009, an American-made commercial satellite crashed into a Russian satellite in the first ever large inter-satellite collision [2]. A 560 kg Iridium satellite used for global satellite voice and data communications was impacted by a 900 kg non-operational Russian satellite 790 km over Siberia [17] [18]. The high energy impact sent debris in orbits ranging from 480 km to 1300 km above the Earth [19]. This increase in the total number of orbital objects yields higher probability of future fragmentation events and dramatically increases the danger to satellites with similar orbital altitudes.
The UN mitigation guidelines are a positive step towards safer orbital regimes, but to ensure that man's presence in space can continue, more priority has to be placed on protecting Earth’s satellites. As the recent satellite collision shows, the hazards of orbital debris may require a stronger technological footing to ensure the safety of future satellites and manned space missions. Space missions may need a heavier emphasis on debris tracking and fragment simulation so operational vehicles can avoid the fragments already in orbit. Higher quality radar that can track smaller objects may be required to minimize the discrepancy between debris that can be avoided (10 cm) and debris that can be shielded (1 cm). Similarly, more computing power may be needed to monitor the debris trajectories and warn satellites to maneuver away from possible collisions. More international focus needs to be placed on preventing future fragmentation events to avoid polluting Earths populated orbital regimes. The orbital dystopia predicted by Wall-E should be kept a fictional fate envisioned by Pixar animators, not a circumstantial rendering of the future for man’s presence in space.


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