Cleaning Up Our Act - The Importance of Space Junk Migration And Utilisation
Recently, I came across an interesting post on LinkedIn (please find the article here: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/melissa-de-zwart-6806104_russias-anti-satellite-missile-test-threatened-activity-6866259326693199872-NuiQ) which concerned the recent anti-satellite missile test which was carried out by Russia. In response to the article, I commented the following:
"One of the problems which the ROCOSMOS comments seem to dismiss is that whether they were in the 'green' zone is irrelevant to whether their actions were reckless. As we increase satellite numbers (expected to be ten fold in the coming years), the amount of object collisions increases by square of that number. Given that we already have an extraordinary amount of debris, which in itself is risking the future of human exploration of space and the safety of the satellites we rely on for day-to-day life (for example, look at the ISS damage sustained earlier this year by space junk hitting the robotic arm), adding to it for a reason which is not out of necessity is irresponsible, end of."
How fitting is it then, that I should now come across an article regarding a company which thinks it may have a solution to this space junk problem. Australian company Neumann Space have already proven themselves, after developing an electric propolsion system which can be used to extend spacecraft missions, as well as for moving and de-orbiting satellites. They now plan to work alongside several other companies (Astroscale, Nanorocks and Cislunar to give them their fair share of credit) to engineer a system which can capture space debris, cut it up into small pieces, melt it and then form metal bars from this, which Neumann's propolsion system can then use as fuel (and all of this whilst IN SPACE!!). This couldn't come at a better time, considering we currently have over 200 'ticking time bombs' being monitored in space, large rocket bodies which are all at great risk of each breaking into thousands of small pieces of debris, significantly worsening the problem. Furthermore, as space debris becomes more of an issue, not only does it pose a greater risk to technology and humans in space, but also on the ground as junk falling out of orbit has the potential to make it through the 'burning up' phase, smashing into the Earth and causing major damage to structures, animals and humans alike.
Thankfully, they are far from the only companies currently exploring possible solutions; Saber Astronautics have won a Nasa grant to develop a 'sail', which would drag spacecraft out of orbit at the end of its useful life; Electro Optic Systems are currently working alongside The University of Canberra to harness laser power, hoping to develop technology which can nudge junk away from expected collisions and from the atmosphere; and The Australian Institute of Machine Learning have been working to improve the tracking and detection of space debris. Out of the over 11,000 satellites which have been launched since the first one, in 1957, just over 3.5k are still functioning, so the problem of space junk is positively brobdingnagian in proportion and really ought to have garnered more attention from the media than it has. Might it have gathered this attention if the public knew the problem was akin to "a wild west" - as described by one of the worlds leading experts in Astrophysics, Professor McDowell, or if the media knew that eventually, the lack of regulations and sanctions for those who breach protocol's, as well as the resulting increase in space junk, could well threaten the future of their companies, with junk colliding with vital satellites being an imminent threat? As highlighted by McDowell, "The technology is just about there now, the money is not. But I think it has to come”. The question is, what does it take for companies and governments to take proper notice of this issue? When will they start to adequately fund the companies who are trying to develop solutions to the issue? Will it, perhaps, take them personally feeling the effects of the problem for them to start acting? The time is now; for progress, for funding, for sanctions on Russia, China and other nations which are polluting space and creating space junk belts, for co-operation, and ultimately, for saying enough is enough. The future of space travel and the human race will be at stake much sooner than one could imagine if action isn't taken now.