The European Space Agency (ESA) is monitoring space debris and running the numbers. According to ESA estimates there are 34,000 space debris objects that are larger than 10-cm. Now compare this to the 900,000 objects that vary from 1-cm to 10-cm in size. Think that’s a lot of trash running around space? Wait till you hear the number of debris objects between 1-mm to 1-cm: 128 million! All this from 5,560 successful rocket launches. Each piece of debris is zipping around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour (mph), making the smallest piece a deadly weapon to astronauts and satellites. Altogether, there’s 6,000 ton of material flying in low earth orbit, making it the world’s largest garbage dump.
With thousands more satellites slated to reach orbit, including a ludicrous number for SpaceX’s Starlink system, many are worried about collisions and the resulting cascade effect that could take out all of our orbiting satellites in an effect known as the Kessler syndrome.
I’ve talked about this many times before, because it’s easy to see how humans take shortcuts that will lead to the disasters of tomorrow. StartRocket, a Russian company, is working on a satellite designed to capture this deadly debris, called the Foam Debris Catcher. It will use foam to adhere clouds of debris together and weigh them down so they can burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. They’re still working on the technology for the foam and financial backers to get a test satellite into space by 2023. StartRocket hopes to use the same foam to build space habitats and cut down on transporting metal, which is heavy and expensive to launch. Instead of building and launching modular habitats to the Moon and Mars, they could shape the foam into any structure and take up less space on the spacecraft. This is the same company that suggested sending satellites into space to create massive advertisements, so I’m skeptical of their motives.
One stumbling block to reducing space debris is the UN Outer Space Treaty stating ownership of an object remains the same while in space. Destroying someone else’s space object violates these terms and there are concerns that any object brought down from space could be reverse engineered. There are other companies working on similar projects, all hoping to cash in on an industry that is rapidly turning into a necessary one, despite the reluctance of companies and governments to clean up after themselves because it’s expensive and they’d rather kick the can down the road.