July 9, 2022 17:19
Scientists and start-ups in a number of countries are racing to work on projects to try to find a solution to the growing problem of space junk.
The latest European Space Agency figures indicate that more than a million pieces of space debris, each of which exceeds one centimeter in size, are the remains of satellites or parts of rockets, orbiting around the Earth at high speeds.
This number is likely to rise disproportionately with the emergence of “giant constellations” of satellites that provide a faster and more widespread Internet.
“We are entering an era in which a large number of satellites will be launched in succession, which will make space more crowded,” says Miki Ito, director of the young Japanese company Astroscale, whose goal is to achieve sustainability in space.
“Simulations have shown that space will become unusable if we continue our activities in it in this way. Therefore, we must improve the space environment before it is too late,” Ito adds.
Accidents in space are increasingly being recorded, as in January a Chinese satellite was hit by shrapnel from an old Soviet satellite. Last year, a hole was recorded in the thermocouple of the International Space Station’s robotic arm, caused by debris barely a few millimeters in size.
– “Alerts of approaching waste”
“Small debris is a problem because there is no accurate information about it,” says Toru Yamamoto, a researcher at the Japanese Space Agency, unlike large debris that have names and whose locations and speed are subject to “continuous tracking processes.”
Although there are rules that stipulate effective practices in reducing space debris, such as directing expired satellites towards an “orbital cemetery,” these rules are not sufficient, especially in the absence of an international text that obliges the authorities to adopt them by law.
Tadanori Fukushima, an engineer at the Japanese company “SkyPerfect GaySat”, which specializes in operating satellites, confirms that “a geosynchronous satellite receives about a hundred warnings of approaching debris.
Fukushima set up a startup to try to solve this problem. The technology, which his company is still experimenting with, is a laser beam that vaporizes the surface of space debris, creating a charge of energy that sends the debris into a different orbit.
Fukushima hopes to conduct the first test of this technology in space by the spring of 2025, in cooperation with several research institutes.
As for the Astroscale project, it is more advanced and is represented by a kind of space “towing vehicle” that works based on magnets to pull out expired satellites.
The company succeeded in its first test, which it conducted last year, and it plans to launch a second test by the end of 2024, in partnership with the European Space Agency and the British company OneWeb, which launched a group of satellites in low orbit.
There is no comprehensive cure.
Among the unusual solutions are wooden satellites, in which another Japanese team sees a solution to the issue of space junk, as wood is a material that completely disappears when the moon returns to Earth.
This project of Kyoto University (western Japan) and the Sumitomo Forestry Group, which specializes in deforestation, is still in its infancy. In March, pieces of wood were sent to the International Space Station to test how the wood responds to cosmic rays.
Other companies from around the world are seeking to enter this emerging market, which may actually take off in 2030, according to Fukushima.
At the end of 2020, the European Space Agency signed a contract worth nearly $100 million with Swiss start-up ClearSpace to send in 2025 the first-ever commercial mission to clean up debris from orbit.
American companies such as Orbit Fab and Spice Logistics (a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Group that specializes in the aerospace and military industries), as well as the Australian company, Numan Space, are working on a number of satellite repair services to extend their life, by By refueling it in space, for example.
Yamamoto sees the space debris problem as so complex that a wide range of solutions are necessary, adding “there is no universal solution” to the issue.
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