ESA: Space debris enters ‘more feared exponential trend’

May 23, 2017  - By
Space Debris: Artist’s impression based on density data, shown at an exaggerated size to make objects visible. Image: ESA

Space Debris: Artist’s impression based on density data, shown at an exaggerated size to make objects visible.
Image: ESA

In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) hosted the 7th European Conference on Space Debris at ESA’s Satellite Control Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. There, international experts discussed ways to head off the threat of space junk.

ESA estimates there are roughly 5,000 objects larger than 1 meter, 20,000 objects over 10 centimeters and 750,000 “flying bullets” of around one centimeter.

Risks of a collision are statistically remote, but “The growth in the number of fragments has deviated from the linear trend in the past and has entered into the more feared exponential trend,” warns Holger Krag, in charge of ESA’s space debris office.

Many of the objects are traveling at enormous speed, up to 56,000 kilometers per hour, giving them the potential explosive force of a hand grenade on impact, said ESA experts.

In the U.S., more than 16,000 objects are tracked and cataloged daily by crews in the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Only 1,100 of the tracked items are functional spacecraft, including GPS satellites.

Dealing with existing debris will call for innovative solutions — the purpose of the four-day summit, held every four years since 1993.

“It’s clear to us that the issue of space debris is serious,” Jan Woerner, ESA chief, told the conference. “No country can stand or act alone.”

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1 Comment on "ESA: Space debris enters ‘more feared exponential trend’"

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  1. William K. says:

    I had hoped to see the other comments, which is what I clicked on.
    Creating a system to intercept, collect, and remove all of this “Space Junk” would be quite a task indeed. One option would be a somewhat passive system consisting of a large armor plate that would simply intercept the objects without being damaged by the impact, and then when it had collected some preset volume of material, eject it towards earth, so that it could burn up on entry. This concept has several challenges aside from sheer mass, it would also need to hang onto the stuff after impact, which would be quite a challenge. The propulsion system to keep it on station would be another challenge, as well as the system to launch the collected junk towards earth. But it would probably be more energy efficient than any other scheme except earth-based high power lasers that would simply convert the junk to clouds of vapor that would harmlessly condense into dust. Such an active system has been proposed, but I have heard nothing more after that announcement.