The trash in outer space makes way for a new kind of map

A graphic representation of how debris is cluttering up Earth's orbitESA

  • Space is getting more congested as more satellites are launched into outer space resulting in more debris in Earth's orbits.
  • Stewart Bain, CEO of NorthStar Earth and Space, explains how accurate information could help companies protect their satellites from possible collisions.
  • Since space is common property, the impetus is on collaboration to find measure, detect and mitigate space debris to make Earth's orbits safe.

Putting a satellite up in space is not a rare achievement anymore. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not expensive. Satellite companies want to protect their assets in space, but that’s getting harder and harder as Earth’s orbits are getting increasingly congested.

The increasing amount of trash and debris left over from rocket launches and left over zombie satellites needs a new kind of map to navigate through the mess.

The European Space Agency ( ESA) estimates that there are around 20,000 objects in space and that’s only going to increase as more players enter the space.

“It’s not like a highway here (on Earth), where there’s an accident and you can just come and clean it up and traffic continues,” explains Stewart Bain, the CEO of NorthStar Earth and Space — a Canadian company focused on space situational awareness.

“When we create it (an accident) up in space, it stays. You’re driving around the garbage mound. And the garbage becomes an obstacle to get around,” Bain adds.

A million little pieces

The most famous threat of space debris came from the 2009 destruction of Iridium 33 when it collided with a defunct Russian satellite. Though the satellite was not destroyed, the resulting debris from the collision created 1,000 fragments that were larger than 10 centimeters among other smaller ones.

The ability to maneuver a satellite in space comes from what is around it and its precise location. Companies don’t want to be warned a thousand times a day, according to Bain, which is why accurate information is important to differentiate between an actual collision and one that ‘might’ happen.

Bain explains, “If your satellite is worth a billion dollars and it's a commercial Earth observation satellite, you want to make sure that you have an accurate prediction and a reliable up-to-date prediction where the debris is, so that you can manage your flight properly.”

It’s similar to when an Uber map shows that the driver is still on enroute, when he is outside the building or when Google makes mistakes with exact location on a map.

When it comes to removing debris from space Bain says, “You need to know where it is before you go get it. You could miss it by 5 kilometers, you could miss it by 20 kilometres.”

And, the more congested space becomes — the more accurate the information has to be.

It’s everyone’s problem

Space, at least for now, doesn’t belong to any one country. Though it started with three countries initially, now the number has gone up to 53 countries which have launched satellites in Earth’s low and medium orbits.

As more objects are sent to space, the risk of collisions increases.

“We’re starting to occupy a space that was relatively a blank sheet… When you talk about debris, you’re talking about its full the assessment. You’re talking about everything down to a paint chip. A paint chip travelling at 16km/s puts a significant hole in just about anything,” Bain explains.

He adds, “You can’t pollute in one country and not expect it impact another. It’s very much amplified in space because of remoteness. When you create a mess in space, we all experience it. So, if we all experience it, we really are in this together.”

That’s my spot

It’s not just about Earth’s orbits getting congested but preference of particular spots as they provide a better angle or better parameters to observe Earth.

NorthStar’s planned 40-satellite constellation, set to launch in 2021, to help monitor and map space debris is one way to that private and government satellite companies can gain access to information that can help mitigate the risk of colliding with stray objects in space.

NorthStar and ExoAnalytic are collaborating on this project to bring more accurate measurements of objects in space, while also keeping an eye on Earth’s chemistry.

The culmination of telescopes will help NorthStar capture more information. Bain elucidates, “The more times you look at something or the more angles from which you look at something, the higher the precision of the prediction of its location.”

Having a better understanding of the space debris can help organisations form better clean space policies, something that is already underway.

Space debris is an unavoidable consequence of using space and regulations need to catch up in order to manage the situation. There is a need for a global standard — a unified library that everyone that refer to in order to understand how to use space.

See also:
A new space debris grading system could keep countries from cluttering up outer space

India's test of its anti-satellite weapon may have weakened its fight against dangerous space debris

It might be time for ‘space superpowers’ to bring in a new space treaty
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