How big is the space clutter problem?
“The problem is that there are a lot of uncontrollable pieces of old satellites floating around the earth, from old missions,” says Liam Pieters, a space debris graduate at TU Delft. “And they have a very high chance of colliding with new missions.”
The consequences are potentially enormous. Because these “new missions” are satellites that predict the weather, perform climate research and activate the GPS signal. These are satellites that we all use on a daily basis.
7 million kilograms of space debris
According to Pieters, the latest estimates assume that there are now around 7 million kilos of space junk orbiting the earth, possibly even more. This trash comes in all shapes and sizes, from chipped pieces of paint to old school bus-sized satellites.
From a size of 10 centimeters, the parts can be followed from the ground. There are 32,000 of them. We can’t track the little bits, but they also move around the earth at speeds of up to 7.5 kilometers per second.
“And if a marble – that is, 1 centimeter – collides with your satellite at such a speed, then you are really in trouble,” says Pieters. Plus: If too many of these pieces collide, you get a chain reaction. “You can imagine that each collision creates a thousand new parts. And each piece of that creates a thousand new pieces. At some point, this could create a situation where we lose all satellites. »
Debris Neutral Space
Yet most experts are Atlas optimistic that it will be possible to contain or even solve the problem of space debris. For example, there is a “Net Zero Space” alliance of companies and organizations that want to tackle the problem.
And, as mentioned, the ESA has announced that it wants to be debris neutral by 2030. A big step forward, thinks Pieters, because US and Chinese space organizations should now follow suit – and these are the main causes of space debris. In his company ClearSpace, they will help ESA in this area, soon cleaning up space debris the size of a small passenger car.
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