An estimated 20,000 objects, including satellites and space debris, are already crammed into low Earth orbit. Furthermore, the launch of new satellites increases the risk of collision.
The problem of pollution has spread beyond planet Earth. Outer space is also accumulating space junk. Since humans launched their first artifact into space in 1957, Sputnik-1, thousands of objects, satellites, probes… occupy a place in space. When these artifacts complete their cycle and stop working, they remain in Earth orbit and from that date, they do not stop accumulating.
This garbage is also known as "space junk" and includes any useless artificial object orbiting the Earth. When something is launched into space, some wreckage does not return to the atmosphere and remains orbiting at speeds exceeding 27,000 km / h.
The variety of debris is enormous: they range from large rocket debris to small paint chips. A recent study indicates that in outer space there are at least 10,000 pieces the size of 10 cm. In addition, the European Space Agency estimates that 52% of the objects that orbit the Earth are ships that have become obsolete, rockets remains and other objects detached during space missions.
The small size of the debris and their high velocity make them very dangerous projectiles. Furthermore, the launch of new satellites increases the risk of collision. There are millions of debris orbiting our planet right now, posing a threat to our orbital "highway", not to mention the uncontrolled dangers that can potentially cause damage to the many active satellites that provide daily benefits to society.
So what is the most effective way to solve the space debris problem?
The economic solution
According to a new study published by the University of Colorado Boulder, it does not consist of capturing debris, but rather an international agreement to charge operators "orbital usage fees" for each satellite put into orbit.
Economist Matthew Burgess, member of CIRES and co-author of the new article, adds: “Orbital usage fees would also increase the long-term value of the space industry”. By reducing the risk of future satellite and debris collisions, an annual fee increasing to approximately $ 235,000 per satellite would quadruple the value of the satellite industry by 2040; Burgess and his colleagues conclude in the article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
A tax seems like a pretty dissuasive action. But what about technological solutions? These include removing space debris from orbit with nets, harpoons, or even lasers; and the "desorbitation" of a satellite at the end of its useful life.
But engineering solutions have their criticisms. According to Akhil Rao, assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College and one of the study's authors, technological solutions would not discourage companies, quite the opposite: “Removing space debris could motivate operators to launch more satellites, further crowding low Earth orbit, increasing collision risk and increasing costs”.
Robots will clean up space junk
Despite the criticisms, a possible technological solution that is very popular, and that will be carried out by ESA in 2025, is the launch of a robot that “cleans” the remaining scrap, coming from disused satellites and others. useless artifacts from Earth's orbit. The project is called ClearSpace-1, led by a Swiss startup and will cost 117 million euros.
Another similar project, this time from a Tokyo company, is called Astroscale, which aims to remove orbital debris through the provision of end-of-life services and active debris removal.