Apparently there are about 22,000 large objects orbiting the Earth, including working and broken satellites and bits of old rocket from past space expeditions. Even worse, if you include all the equipment dropped by astronauts while floating in space and the debris from colliding satellites down to around 1cm in size, there are about one million bits of space junk in Earth’s orbit.
Jez Turner, a Teaching Associate in Foundation Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Nottingham in the UK, writing in The Conversation, informs us that a long-term solution is being proposed by The Gateway Earth Development Group. The Group is a collection of academics from universities around the world who propose turning this potential catastrophe into a resource. By 2050, Gateway Earth – a fully operational space station with a facility to recycle old satellites and other junk – could be up and running. This would reduce the potential for costly collisions between functioning satellites and debris (which could threaten communications, air navigation, meteorology etc.), as well as potentially providing a revenue stream for recycled materials and components.
Technology to clear up the estimated 7,000 tonnes of ‘junk’ currently in orbit is under development. One programme is the EU-sponsored RemoveDEBRIS; which is aimed at performing key Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations to find the best way to capture the space debris orbiting Earth. The consortium working on the programme includes the University of Surrey, Stellenbosch University, Airbus Defence and Space, Airbus Safran Launchers, SSTL, ISIS (Netherlands), CSEM (Switzerland) and Inria (France).
With the profusion of satellites being launched, Jez argues the need for a space equivalent of the plastics wake-up call that people received from Blue Planet 2. There is still time, but plans for cleaning up Earth’s orbit need to be acted on now.