When this week India hit one of itsNASA’s own rocket satellites, NASA administrator Jim Brydenstein was not surprised. However, he expressed his dissatisfaction: “Creating space debris fields intentionally is wrong ... If we litter the cosmos, we will not return it”. The problem of space debris is only aggravated: dead satellites, spent missiles, debris from previous clashes - all this threatens working satellites, people in space and even the International Space Station.
It's too early to talk about a cloud of debris,left after the Indian test. The Pentagon "laid eyes" on 250 separate parts, reports Reuters. However, although a cloud of metallic fragments was probably formed during the collision, it occurred at a relatively small height. Most of them will fall to Earth in a few months.
How much garbage is in orbit?
And although Brydenstein was not pleased with the Indianthe test, space debris experts have more problems. The alleged "mega-constellations" of satellites can lead to much more serious and long-lasting problems.
About half of all space junk todayformed by only two events: the anti-satellite test of the Chinese government in 2007 and the accidental collision of two satellites in 2009.
However, there are plans to make lowEarth orbit more populated. For example, a OneWeb startup wants to put 900 small satellites into orbit to provide a broadband Internet connection in places where it is currently unavailable. At the same time, SpaceX received permission to place 12,000 satellites in low and very low near-Earth orbits. Other companies, such as Telesat and LeoSat, have similar plans.
A sudden influx of recruits can causeserious problems. In a paper presented at the 69th International Astronautical Congress in Bremen last October, Glenn Peterson, a researcher at Aerospace Corporation, calculated the effects of introducing thousands of satellites to communications, surveillance and reconnaissance into low-Earth orbit, where most of the space debris is located.
If all the mega constellations are running, byPeterson estimates that more than 67,000 collision warnings will be generated annually by modern tracking technologies. Operators will then have to choose whether to perform hundreds of satellite warning maneuvers per day or risk a low probability of collision.
In January, the manufacturing companyCapella synthesized aperture radar imagery decided to move its only Denali satellite when faced with the likelihood of crashing into a commercial Kubsat. “The probability of a collision was around 12%,” says Capella CEO Payam Banazadeh. "This is a big risk and we took it very seriously."
This was the first time Capella usedDenali engine, and the whole maneuver took several days. Future maneuvers will be faster, but they will still need attention - especially if they have to be carried out several times a day, Banazadeh says. "Instead of collecting images in a specific area, you change the orbit, waste time and resources, and then check the post factum."
And yet, if at least one missed alarmproves to be true, the consequences could be catastrophic. No one thought that Iridium could score on a satellite and save money, but the orbital environment is becoming more populated and competitive.
“If I behave decently in space, it does not mean that others will be, too,” says Banazadeh. "It may take just a few bad actors to make things worse."
Very soon the US will have a network.advanced ground-based radar, known as the Space Fence. It should improve the accuracy of predictions of possible collisions. But this technology is a double-edged sword, Peterson says. Where modern radar can reliably track only 20,000-plus pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimeters in size, sensors of the future will be able to detect fragments up to 2 centimeters in size, and their number will reach 200,000.
Peterson calculated that even if all objectstracked accurately, larger constellations will encounter several hundred false warnings annually. Some operators may be tempted to take a chance and go on a close passage with an unlikely collision, but any “meeting” will be disastrous at a speed of 30,000 kilometers per hour.
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