With ever more satellite launches planned, how should we deal with the problem of orbiting fragments of space junk?
A new report from Southampton University raises concerns about the amount of debris orbiting the planet. As demand for satellite-delivered services such as broadband Internet increases, and satellites become smaller, lighter, and cheaper to launch, private firms including Google, SpaceX, Samsung and Boeing are planning to manufacture and launch “mega-constellations” of thousands of small satellites to provide services around the world.
However, aerospace engineer Dr Hugh Lewis of Southampton is set to warn, at a conference on the subject in Darmstadt this week, that such launches risk increasing the amount of space junk in orbit and could result in a 50 per cent increase in the chance of collisions over the next 200 years, potentially disrupting services and risking damage to other satellites. Mutch of the debris in orbit is very small, but such is the speed of orbiting objects that even a fragment the size of a coin can pack a punch equivalent to a hand grenade if it collides with another object, and every collision creates more debris fragments.
“The constellations that are due to be deployed from next year contain an unprecedented number of satellites, and a constellation launched without much thought will see a significant impact on the space environment because of the increased rate of collisions that might occur,” Lewis said.
In this week’s poll, we’d like to know what Engineer readers believe should be the priority for dealing with this problem. Should there be a moratorium on satellite constellation launches, to keep the number of small objects in orbit to more manageable levels? Should private companies launching satellites be mandated to equip them with systems to ensure safe de-orbiting and jettisoning of potentially hazardous fuel tanks and batteries, so that they burn up in the upper atmosphere without creating more orbiting fragments? Or should there be a focus on developing technologies that could clean up the orbital regions most congested by potentially dangerous fragments?
As always, we encourage debate in the comment section; comments are particularly useful if you choose the “none of the above” option. Comments will be moderated to ensure that the discussion remains on-topic. We will publish the results of this poll on this page on 25 April.