European Conference Attendees Agree Action Needed On Space Debris

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

The findings from the 6th European Conference on Space Debris were released during a press briefing at the ESA’s European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The conference included over 350 worldwide participants representing all the major national space agencies, industry, governments, academia and research institutes.

“There is a wide and strong expert consensus on the pressing need to act now to begin debris removal activities,” says Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA´s Space Debris Office. “Our understanding of the growing space debris problem can be compared with our understanding of the need to address Earth´s changing climate some 20 years ago.”

Scientists agree that the continuing growth in space debris poses an increasing threat to economically and scientifically vital orbital regions. Today’s satellite infrastructure also has immense financial value, with the replacement cost for the 1,000 active satellites in orbit today being estimated at over $130 billion. The impact of losing these satellites economically would be several orders of magnitude higher.

“While measures against further debris creation and actively deorbiting defunct satellites are technically demanding and potentially costly, there is no alternative to protect space as a valuable resource for our critical satellite infrastructure,” Klinkrad notes. “Their direct costs and the costs of losing them will by far exceed the cost of remedial activities.”

Satellite operators around the globe are working on a plan to try and control space debris to avoid collisions. The ultimate goal is to prevent a cascade of self-sustaining collisions from setting in over the next few years.

ESA said a number of long-standing space debris-related research activities are being reinforced by the agency, including improving the understanding of the debris environment.

The new Clean Space initiative introduced includes maturing technology to approach, capture and deorbit-targets. Clean Space will also develop techniques to mitigate the problem, such as passive and active deorbiting devices.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are always facing a slight risk of getting hit by orbital debris. Last October astronauts had to move the orbiting laboratory higher up in orbit to avoid hitting space debris. Maneuvers like this are carried out when a likelihood of a collision reaches 1 in 10,000. Even a small piece of space debris could be detrimental for astronauts aboard the space station.