Space trash and Kessler Syndrome: Should we be worried?

Expert on space debris says time is running out to prevent catastrophic collisions

According to various estimates, there are about 10,000 satellites in orbit as of 2023. dpa / AP
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If the growing space debris problem is not adequately addressed within the next 50 years, satellite and space junk could cause a chain reaction of collisions, creating a cataclysmic breakdown of global communications systems and causing trillions of dollars in damages, a leading expert in the US has warned.

“The Kessler Syndrome is going to come true,” said John L Crassidis, a professor of innovation and space debris expert at the University at Buffalo in western New York.

He was referring to Nasa scientist and astrophysicist Donald Kessler, who, in the late 1970s, first raised concerns and projections about the problem of space junk.

“If the probability of a collision is so great that we can’t put a satellite in space, then we’re in trouble,” said Mr Crassidis, who worked for Nasa from 1994 to 1996, and still works alongside the space agency as well as the US Air Force and other government entities to monitor space debris.

His warning comes days after Anu Ojha, a director with the UK's Space Agency, shared similar sentiments about the need to “urgently” police the number of objects orbiting Earth.

According to various estimates, there are about 10,000 satellites in orbit as of 2023 and more than 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites still circling the planet.

In recent years, the number of satellites being launched into orbit has spiked, as companies like SpaceX capitalise on the ability to launch satellites in a cost-effective manner.

Five key facts about 'space junk'

Five key facts about 'space junk'

The big problems, according to Mr Crassidis, are the satellites that are either secretive due to national defence reasons or unaccounted for due to their age.

There’s also the issue of varying policies and enforcement guidelines in different countries.

He pointed to an incident in 2009, when a deactivated Russian communications satellite, Kosmos 2251, collided with a US commercial satellite, Iridium.

“That debris field was crazy,” he said, referring to the aftermath of the collision which created even more space junk, increasing the potential for more collisions.

In 2021, a Russian missile destroyed an obsolete Russian satellite as part of a test, but it resulted in so much debris that astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station had to undertake emergency procedures to stay safe.

“That’s the stuff I’m worried about – those pieces can go right through an astronaut,” said Mr Crassidis.

Back in October, in an unprecedented move, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it would be issuing its first ever space debris fine, a penalty of $150,000 to Dish Network, for failing to comply with deorbiting regulations required by US law.

“This is a breakthrough settlement,” said FCC enforcement bureau chief Loyaan Egal. “It makes it very clear that the FCC has strong enforcement authority and capability to enforce its vitally important space debris rules.”

Mr Crassidis, however, cautioned that although the fine was a step in the right direction, it is not by any means a fix to the space debris problem.

“I thought it should have been higher,” he said, referring to the fine. “It’s peanuts to them; it was really small.”

According to Nasa, there are currently two conventional ways to deal with obsolete space satellites: the first method uses the last bit of fuel in the devices to slowly bring them out of orbit, allowing them to eventually burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the other option involves sending the satellite into a higher orbit where it won’t be able to cause problems.

Sometimes, however, as Mr Crassidis points out, technical glitches, miscalculation of fuel requirements and secrecy with regard to spy satellites can create problems with tracking, and therefore increase the likelihood of collisions.

There are efforts under way from the international scientific community involving the potential use of nets, harpoons, robotic arms and even magnets to deal with the growing space junk problem, but most of those solutions are in the early test stages, and not cost effective.

Britain’s Space Minister George Freeman recently proposed a global system of rules to regulate space involving Kitemarks on satellites that would hypothetically ensure any new satellite going into orbit would meet the standards necessary to ensure they don’t pose a danger to other satellites.

That idea, according to Mr Freeman, enjoyed the support of both Switzerland and Canada, but it’s not clear yet if it will receive worldwide acceptance – an ongoing problem faced by many of these proposals, according to Mr Crassidis.

“The most practical thing we can do is to better characterise and track the debris better,” he said, noting that his company, XAnalytix Systems, operates in that particular area, and his ongoing research at the University at Buffalo allows him to research the problem while also encouraging students to do so as well.

“We're going to pass this problem along to them,” he said, referring to students.

“We want to improve the debris tracking models so we can ultimately track everything better.”

Although not directly tied to the issue of space debris, the Artemis Accords, an international treaty spearheaded by Nasa, does provide a foundation for the problem to be addressed.

The accords, signed by 33 nations, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India, UK and Canada, seek to create a shared vision of peaceful space co-operation.

“Preserving a safe and sustainable environment in space is critical for both public and private activities … Nasa and partner nations will agree to plan for the mitigation of orbital debris, including the safe, timely and efficient passivation and disposal of spacecraft at the end of their missions,” reads part of the agreement.

As for Mr Crassidis, he welcomes the potential for co-operation on the space junk issue, but said more nations need to be on the same page.

“We have to share information,” he said, acknowledging the difficulty of that approach in an increasingly volatile geopolitical environment. “It’s not going to work until you get all countries willing to buy into that.”

Updated: March 05, 2024, 11:03 AM