UK space champion warns satellite numbers need urgent policing to avoid catastrophe

Numbers set to reach 30,000 by 2030 significantly increasing risk of collision, says director of UK Space Agency

An illustration shows the growing problem of space junk, from the 1950s to the present day. AP
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The number of objects orbiting the world needs to be “urgently” policed to avoid an economic catastrophe, a director with the UK’s Space Agency has told The National.

Prof Anu Ojha said with satellite numbers more than tripling to 30,000 by the end of the decade, the risk of collision would increase significantly.

If satellites crash in space, they produce numerous fragments that can lead to the Kessler Effect, in which the cascade of increasing collisions could destroy all satellites in low Earth orbit, creating an economic and human disaster.

It is estimated that 20 per cent of the British economy is dependent on satellite communications, either by timing of financial transactions, navigation or the internet.

“There is a such an urgency in how crowded space is that we need to be acting now,” said Prof Ojha, director of championing space at UK Space Agency.

“It’s one of the existential problems of our time. We're now getting to a point where the Kessler effect has no longer become something that we're just teaching as a theoretical possibility.”

Previously the Kessler Effect, which was proposed in the 1970s, was thought to be theoretical due to the low volume of material in orbit.

Even six years ago, there were only 2,000 active satellites but now there are about 8,000.

That number is set to dramatically increase with China launching the Guo-Wang project of 13,000 satellites, the Amazon Kuiper initiative of about 3,500 and Airbus’ Oneweb plan for more than 700.

With rockets sending satellites into low Earth orbit – between 300km and 1,600km up – on a near weekly basis, the area above Earth is going to become significantly “cluttered”, said Prof Ojha, a physicist.

If the 2009 Iridium 33 event – in which two satellites – collided happened today “it would be so much more impactful because of the volume of stuff we've got up there”.

He stated that space debris the size of a British one pound coin had the impact force of a Land Rover driving at 130kph.

“The worry is that we are reaching saturation point in terms of traffic and when we start to look at the challenges of inadvertent orbital conjunctions, we’re in a bit of an unknown space.”

Without any enforceable rules in space, the chances of a mishap will multiply. Britain is attempting, through the UN, to establish “long-term sustainable space guidelines”.

“It is best practice that's got to be allied with a regulatory regime which is enforceable,” he said. “We don't have the solutions yet, but we have got to work at pace as we don't want to have a ‘plastics in the ocean’ issue.”

The UK Space Agency is supporting two mission concepts for cleaning up debris and is expected to select one in the coming months.

The proposed spacecraft will rendezvous and capture a defunct satellite and then create a velocity change to its orbit, sending it to burn up in the atmosphere.

“That's great as a technology demonstrator but as a sector, we've got to come to a consensus about who, ultimately, is going to pay for the services in the volume that we're going to need,” Prof Ojha said speaking at the UK Space Conference in Belfast.

It was an area Britain wanted to lead in because “we genuinely believe in space as a force for global good and we are worried on the environmental side of what is happening”.

Major coming satellite initiatives would be “transformative” for economies, especially the those which do not have fast internet access and will be “fundamental to the way that societies operate”.

“This is why the real worry is about that low Earth orbit traffic,” he said.

Updated: December 28, 2023, 7:53 AM