Sector's insights

Space debris: the B-side of the aerospace industry

24 de February de 2023

  • The special race that began in the 1950s with the launch of thousands of rockets and satellites has left, to this day, a graveyard of different space parts and components orbiting around our heads.
  • In this article we tell you the keys to this problem and how we have reached this situation and what the aerospace industry can do to eradicate this problem.

The risks involved

According to estimates by the European Space Agency, there are around 7,800 satellites in space, most of them inactive, and 36,500 pieces of space debris. This problem has led to the first time since we began exploring the universe that a piece of “made in Earth” debris, out of control and of dubious origin, hit the surface of the Moon.

This event is not a tragedy, but it is an important warning to the aerospace industry’s mismanagement of waste. A report published by NASA shows that low Earth orbit is home to at least 26,000 fragments equal to or larger than a baseball, enough to shatter a satellite. There would be more than 500,000 the size of a marble and more than 100 million the size of a grain of salt, big enough to puncture an astronaut’s suit.

What solutions are at hand?

The alternatives to leaving a clean space with fewer dangers involve technology and the development of tools linked to the decomposition of elements once they have reached the end of their useful life.

One such initiative, ClearSpace-1, created by ESA and scheduled to become operational in 2025, is to deal with space debris autonomously by capturing it, either to remove it from orbit or to refuel it to prolong its life.

A Japanese company, Astrocale, is also working on developing technology to keep orbital highways free of space debris. Its key project is ELSA-d, a satellite developed to safely remove debris objects from orbit, equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism.

Problems for future missions

Far from being a problem that only affects earth orbit, the reality is that all this space debris puts future space missions, specifically to the moon, at risk.

A catalogue currently exists for Earth orbit for which a theoretical estimate of the amount of space debris and its distribution can be made, a catalogue that is not available for the moon and which therefore hinders missions to the neighbouring planet due to the risk of possible collisions with space junk.

The viability of continuing to develop a future and powerful aerospace industry depends on the materials we send into space being returned to Earth, collected by other satellites or disintegrating at the end of their useful life, in order to ensure a free and safe space for the development of new missions and projects.