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Russian Space Junk Drama

Missed by many, but on the 27th of January two bits of Russian space junk travelling at 26,000 kph, 984 km altitude above the Earth missed each other by 6m; this was a remarkable ‘escape’. If they had collided the resultant debris field would have been enormous, lasted for decades and obscured another part of the Earth’s orbit. It is a matter of time before we are not so lucky and are left to mop up the consequences. We need a gear shift in energy and appetite to clean up Space before it’s too late.

A disused 1986 Soviet SL-8 rocket booster (the size of a single decker bus), orbiting at 1000km and 25,000kph for the last 37 years narrowly missed the (fridge-sized) 24 year old dead Cosmos 2361 satellite. LeoLabs calculated the miss distance at 6m and coloured their image above to show that this was very close to being a “worst-case scenario”. There are 160 of these boosters, 160 similar satellites and 40,000 more bits greater than 10cm, which will continue to orbit until they impact something. Any collision is bad, these were massive, but even a fleck of paint travelling at 20k+ kph is going to hurt. This orbit is a known dangerous and cluttered region, but it does impose itself on other orbits forcing challenging navigation and steering computations to reach geostationary communications and GPS positions.

So, something must be done. LeoLabs have done a fantastic job in tracking and warning of this interaction, but Space Traffic Management – tracking, warning, and avoiding – needs increasing acuity to follow objects smaller than 10cm all of which can damage or destroy another orbiting body. These warnings will prompt satellite operators to manoeuvre assets around debris, which uses precious fuel and will shorten the life of satellites. We could overcome this with in-orbit refuelling, which needs the rendezvous, proximity operations and docking (RPOD) capability. The faster we can develop this, the quicker we can solve this challenge, and also begin to clean Space up. RPOD is central to de-littering, but it needs industry to crowd in and accelerate progress.

It would be useful if nations took responsibility for their own litter. Colin Powell’s pottery barn theory of accepting responsibility for things you break hasn’t yet been adopted in Space, but we need to try harder. We urgently need a more proactive debate to find some consensus before Space is polluted to the point of becoming unusable. Making Space a safe place is a high-minded goal, but not enough is being done to make this the case, let alone slow down orbital littering.

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