Space Junk

Some people may think we, human beings, are intelligent and strong, but the fact is, our lives are weak, especially in space. Without an appropriate resource supply and protection, we can’t even stay in space for a minute. Therefore, ensuring that people can stay in a safe environment is a prerequisite for popularization of space hospitality and space tourism, expectedly focused on Earth orbital at least at the beginning, in the future.

Unexpected artificial objects, or space junk, are the most critical threats to space vehicles and space stations/hotels. As they travel in high speed, e.g. up to 7.8 km/s or higher in a low Earth orbital, even a small object can cause catastrophic consequences. A collision with a 10-cm object may be enough to totally destroy a space vehicle or hotel, and even a much smaller one can make it invalid.

More importantly, the chance of such collisions is growing significantly. Space junk began to accumulate in Earth orbit after the launch of Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. More than 128 million objects smaller than 1 cm, ~900,000 objects between 1-10 cm and ~34,000 objects larger than 10 cm were estimated to be in Earth orbital, as of Jan 2019. They came from various sources, such as dead spacecraft, lost equipment, boosters and weapons, and undoubtedly will continue to accumulate.

For dealing with space junk, several types of efforts, such as growth mitigation, self-removal and external removal are under development. However, to the best of my knowledge, no international safety standards and regulations are well-established, and yet no mature methods can promisingly help the future space vehicles or hotels avoid from the threats of space junk.

Safety is the foundation of space hospitality and space tourism. We can’t image a scenario that a space vehicle with 100 travelers is crashed with a big enough piece of junk. They will hopelessly lose their lives very soon. It will be not only a humanitarian disaster, but also bring strongly negative impacts on the development of space hospitality and space tourism.

Human beings are weak in space. So we may need a XPRIZE challenge to formulate effective solutions for dealing with space junk before we start large-scale human space activities in Earth orbital.

by Steven Wu, Crointel

Good point! Giving this my vote :slight_smile:

There is an explosion of interest in using space-based imagery to address myriad of earthy issues from archaeology to volcano tracking to sea piracy. To keep up with these new applications, we must ensure that orbits remain open and safe for new devises, and astronauts. Innovation in identifying and removing space junk to reduce costs is critical.

DARPA looked into this some, the “Catcher’s Mitt” study. I do not believe they found a reasonable solution.

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program has had some studies as well. One of those looked promising, the “Brane Craft,” designed by a PI at the Aerospace Corp. It’s a thin memBrane (get it?) spacecraft, not unlike a sheet of Saran Wrap, with thrusters and electronics embedded on the surfaces in a method similar to how TV panels are made. It had enough Delta-V that a 100g spacecraft could feasibly de orbit 7-8 2kg pieces of debris. Unfortunately, the PI has retired.

This is a hard problem, and perhaps the hardest part of it is that the people who launched what are now called “debris” still own those spacecraft, and many of them will not cooperate with removal. If you move a dead spacecraft and the company that owns it complains about it, do you have to pay them? How much?

I am interested in potentially participating in any meeting that you decide to have. Thanks.

This is an interesting and multifaceted subdomain - thanks @crointel for the suggestion. XPRIZE has led the way in driving regulatory changes, notably in the Ansari XPRIZE, so we don’t need to count out the idea yet. I’m curious if anyone in the community has knowledge of proposed regulatory frameworks for handling ‘space junk’?

There’s a brief review about national and international regulation about space junk. It seems no binding international regulatory framework available yet, as of today.

@kblackwe, @derleth, @buzlityr, I wonder if you can shed some light on this topic for us as well. Specifically to @TerryMulligan’s question on the regulatory framework(s) for handling space “junk” - but we welcome your thoughts on the topic in general as well! Do you agree this is a worthwhile topic for XPRIZE to focus on? If so, please let us know and up-vote this idea!

@derleth -
This is an interesting direction of thought. I haven’t even considered the regulatory aspects of space junk removal.

That said, do we really want to concern ourselves with those kinds of dilemmas? It seems to me (perhaps as a naive technology solutionist) that we should move forward first, and then let the UN and governments figure the regulatory aspect after the fact. That’s the way things were done in the case of asteroid mining (which failed at the moment, but not because of regulatory issues).

Well, I agree to some extent. But no company is going to be able to remove space junk without considering liabilities. (I remember real estate people saying “it’s easy to do millions of dollars worth of damage to a $100k property, just think of the costs of renovating a gas station! If someone ruled against your company after the fact, you’d be out one company.) Governments might be able to do so without a legal framework in place, and perhaps they should.

HOWEVER, I think a good set of lawyers might be able to come up with something really excellent. I imagine that if collisions caused by dead satellites were ruled to be the fault of the owner of the dead satellite, and they were liable for damages (potentially up to a billion dollars, I think) there would be a renaissance of trying to clean up space. Companies would see removing dead satellites to be worth a certain amount of money to limit their liabilities.

Yes, I think that this could be an excellent X-prize. I’ve voted for it.

@Roey - don’t rule out asteroid mining yet!

Considering asteroid mining, NASA recently have a relevant challenge but targeting the moon:
NASA’s Break the Ice

Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful follow up @crointel and @derleth!

I certainly hope that companies that don’t remove their dead satellites from orbit, will be liable for damages caused. However, as long as we have no good way of eliminating space junk, the regulator is probably very hesitant of imposing this kind of restriction.

I’m going to guess that when space junk removal solutions will be widely available, the regulator will follow suit and require firms to hire those services.

And I will never rule out asteroid mining. There’s a reason I wrote "which failed at the moment) :wink:

The ESA is teaching AI to autonomously dodge space junk in orbit.

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Whatever humans screw up is left for the AI to put aright.

Kinda. AI for all, all for AI… :grinning:

Hi @Rahul, @RobertB, @Sergio123Cabral, @SynergyKevin, @Sheelika - What are your thoughts on dealing with Space Junk before we start large-scale human space activities in Earth orbital.

Eyes on an out-of-control rocket in Earth orbital:

The out-of-control rocket had been back to the Earth and plugged into Indian ocean.

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Yeah, I heard about it yesterday. For a few days it felt like we were all playing Russian roulette :confused: