For as long as there have been humans, there has been garbage. No matter where we go, we leave our trash behind – and, since the late 1950s, that includes space. Human nature? It sure seems like it. Is it also human nature to let garbage pile up until the cost of removing it is exorbitant? The price the European Space Agency just announced it will pay for the removal of one piece of space garbage may confirm that conjecture. How much?
“Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water. That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”
In the press release announcing the singular space garbage removal project, ESA Director General Jan Woerner tries to justify the cost with an interesting mental picture of all of history’s shipwrecks floating on the surface of the oceans, lakes and rivers. While the actual total number of boards and bits of bows is impossible to estimate, the amount of similar spacecraft, satellite and rocket debris in space isn’t. Various estimate based on history and tracking data put the number of space objects bigger than 10 cm (4 inches) at around 29,000, about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm and more than 128 million bits of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in). That includes almost 2,000 live satellites and 3,000 dead ones – numbers increasing daily with people like Elon Musk filling the atmosphere with tiny communications satellites.
One proposed consequence of all that space junk is the Kessler syndrome (proposed in 1978 by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler) where the density of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) is high enough that even just one collision between objects could cause a cascade of collisions, making space a dangerous place for satellites, rockets and human space travelers. Can anything be done or is it too late … or too costly?
“NASA and ESA studies show that the only way to stabilise the orbital environment is to actively remove large debris items. Accordingly we will be continuing our development of essential guidance, navigation and control technologies and rendezvous and capture methods through a new project called Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing – ADRIOS. The results will be applied to ClearSpace-1. This new mission, implemented by an ESA project team, will allow us to demonstrate these technologies, achieving a world first in the process.”
After a competitive bidding process, the Swiss company ClearSpace, based at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) research institute, was awarded the contract to send a ship to pick up one piece of space junk – the upper stage of an ESA rocket launched in 2013 weighing 100 kg (220 pounds) – and drag it down into the atmosphere until but the space garbage truck and its payload burn up. All of this one-time-only garbage removal – scheduled to occur in 2025 — for the low, low price of … $110 million (100 million euros)!
Will it be worth it? Will the cost come down? Is there any way to reduce space debris from occurring in the first place? Elon Musk is using reusable rockets – is that enough of a trade-off for thousands of satellites?
What does Kessler think?