Space Junk + Science News for Students

(Pasadena, California – March 30, 2022)

On the morning of November 15, 2021, seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) awoke to the news that they were headed directly into an area littered with dangerous space junk. Any collision with the space junk meant immediate damage to the spacecraft and threatened the safety of all inside.

While the ISS was able to transit the area without any issues, the reality is that space junk is becoming a big issue. Tom McCarthy, Vice President of Motiv, weighed in with Science News for Students about space junk and what Motiv is doing to help solve the problem.

Space Debris

The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that more than 36,500 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters (four inches) are in orbit around Earth. In addition to those pieces, there are about a million more between one and 10 centimeters also in orbit. Adding on to that, more than 300 million pieces — too small to even measure — are also littered throughout space.

But where is this debris coming from? Most space debris comes from satellites that are no longer in operation. Since 1957, tens of thousands of satellites have been launched into space. In 2020 alone, more than 1,200 satellites entered space (the highest number ever). With the ISS situation, a “debris field” of more than 1,500 pieces had been created after the Russian government had blown up a defunct satellite. Though this was just one satellite, its threat may persist for years — maybe even decades.

All of this space debris is creating a significant threat to missions because of where it is and what it can do. Residing in low-Earth orbit, or LEO, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) above Earth’s surface, pieces of debris can reach speeds of up to eight kilometers (five miles) per second. At this speed, the impact from space junk can obtain speeds of 15 kilometers per second, or 10 times as fast as a bullet, which could decimate delicate space machinery. With so much at stake for the safety of current and future missions, space companies like Motiv have been tackling the issue of how to clean up space.

What Can Be Done

“When it comes to orbital debris, there are a variety of approaches on how to handle these things,” says McCarthy. To help combat space debris, McCarthy shared that Motiv has been developing motion control technology for OSAM-1, a spacecraft that would extend the working life of satellites. OSAM-1 (which stands for On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1) is the world’s first-ever on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing mission. It can locate and rehabilitate government-owned satellites — even those satellites that were never built or intended to be serviced in space — and finds ways to service those satellites while in orbit. Scheduled to launch in 2024, OSAM-1’s capabilities will help alleviate the space junk issue and demonstrate the potential of many technologies, tools, and techniques that will push future space missions into new horizons.

While there is change coming via commercial space innovation, the bottom line is that the space junk issue is here and now — and it’s only getting worse. From small to large, it is in humankind’s best interest to clean up space debris soon. Because if it isn’t, it may quickly become all of our problems — not just those in space. But with the help of Motiv and other space companies, we’re on our way to getting it cleaned up.

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