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