Saturday, August 28, 2021

Increased Earth-orbit Garbage Threatens Space Market Expansion!

 Companies are starting to monitor and remove objects, an activity that may increase in the future.

  Human activities have polluted the planet's waters, soils and atmosphere.  With the space environment, it was no different, starting in the 1950s. According to specialists, garbage is a big enough threat to, if out of control, derail a considerable part of the space market.

 In February 2009, a communications satellite from the US company Iridium Satellite and a decommissioned Russian military satellite collided at a speed of about ten kilometers per second, at an altitude of 800 kilometers.  The collision could have been avoided with a maneuver to change the orbit of the Iridium satellite, since data from the American military showed, at the time, that the two satellites should pass within 500 meters of each other.

 Image capture by LeoLabs company, which tracks more than 20,000 objects in low orbit, at less than 2,000 km altitude

 Image capture by LeoLabs company, which tracks more than 20,000 objects in low orbit, at less than 2,000 km altitude - Reproduction/LeoLabs

 ​From 1999 to 2020, the International Space Station made 29 maneuvers to dodge space junk.  Such deviations are costly, time-consuming and not risk-free.

 In the case of the space station, a diversion maneuver is performed whenever there is a collision risk of one in 10,000 or more, unless the maneuver puts the crew at risk.  Therefore, neither waste monitoring nor diversion maneuvers are trivial and require careful calculations and considerations.

 The monitoring of space objects and debris was done, until a few years ago, only by a few government entities like the American and Russian ones.

 More recently, companies such as LeoLabs, from California, have established their own radar networks and started to monitor what happens in close space —in the case of the Californian company, the first 2,000 km, the so-called low orbit, are watched (hence the Leo do). name, from the English “low Earth orbit”).  The company claims to monitor 20,297 objects of different types and offers an interactive application where you can view in real time the estimated positions of these objects.

 However, such numbers are only a small fraction of the problem.  According to NASA, the American space agency, which monitors around 27,000 objects in space, there must be more than 100 million unmonitorable fragments in orbit (because they are less than about five centimeters in diameter).

 Even small paint chips can be dangerous in space because of their extremely high speed: some windows on old space shuttles had to be replaced due to damage caused by paint fragments.

 Some initiatives, such as the European satellite ClearSpace-1, to be launched in 2025, are also being taken to remove space debris before it causes problems.

 The satellite will have four robotic arms to capture large objects in pre-targeted missions.  The mission is part of a contract with a Swiss startup and one of its objectives is to establish a market for debris removal companies.

 Given the more than 2,000 active satellites in orbit and the many thousands of new satellites with plans to launch, the space junk problem is only likely to increase.  Given the risks but also the potential profits involved, the market for monitoring and removing this waste is also expected to increase considerably in the future, according to analysts.  Well-known companies both in the military and in the civilian market, such as Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, among others, are already developing such activities.

 Another problem is interference, because of the glare from satellites reflecting sunlight, from nanosatellite constellations in astronomical observations — a passing satellite appears as a light streak in the image, and it may have to be discarded or some phenomenon may be covered up.  There are agreements between industries and scientific entities to study ways to build and operate satellites in order to minimize the loss of scientific data.



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