ESA report shows significant increase in space debris in Earth’s orbitLeigh Mc Gowranon April 25, 2022 at 11:37 Silicon RepublicSilicon Republic


A new report from the European Space Agency (ESA) shows how crowded space is getting, with concerns being raised about the rising level of space debris and satellites in Earth’s orbit.

The ESA’s latest Space Environment Report shows that more than 30,000 pieces of space debris have been spotted and are being regularly tracked by space surveillance networks.

The ESA said that there were 10,000 catalogued debris objects surrounding Earth by the end of 2003 and the agency’s estimated total figure of dangerous debris is significantly higher.

According to NASA, space debris is mostly human-generated objects. It includes pieces of spacecrafts and flecks of paint, parts of rockets, satellites that have stopped working and fragments resulting from explosions in orbit.

The ESA has previously stated that objects in the 1cm to 10cm size range pose a deadly threat, as they are too small to track but can cripple or destroy any spacecraft they hit.

Based on statistical models, the ESA estimates on 4 April that there are 1m pieces of space debris in orbit that range from 1cm to 10cm in size, with an estimated 36,500 objects larger than 10cm.

More debris, more satellites

While the amount of space debris has risen, the ESA report noted that low orbit is also getting more crowded with satellites.

The ESA said the number of satellite launches from private companies has significantly increased in recent years, while the average size of satellites is getting smaller. This has also increased the number of satellite constellations, or groups of satellites working together as a system.

“Many of these constellations are launched to provide communication services around the globe,” the ESA said in a statement. “They have great benefits, but will pose a challenge to long-term sustainability.”

The number of collision alerts experienced by satellites is also on the rise, with collision alerts with other satellites increasing at low altitudes, while the risk of encountering space debris grows at higher altitudes.

“Not all alerts require evasive action,” the ESA said. “But as the number of alerts increases, it will become impossible for spacecraft operators to respond to them all manually.”

In 2020, two defunct satellites racing across the sky at around 53,000kph narrowly missed smashing into each other.

One fear highlighted by the ESA is the risk of “Kessler Syndrome” in the long term. This is a scenario where the amount of objects in space create a cascading effect, with collisions creating more debris which causes more collisions.

The ESA said that in this event, certain low-earth orbits could become “entirely inhospitable”.

Last February, the European Commission proposed a Space Traffic Management system, alongside a proposed €6bn satellite system.

“Space has become more crowded than ever, increasing the complexity and the risks related to space operations,” high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, said at the time.

The main goals of this system are to promote the safe and sustainable use of space while preserving the EU’s strategic autonomy and industrial competitiveness.

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