Space Jam: Efforts Launched to Corral Orbital Junk


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The quickening pace of satellite launches into low-earth orbit for applications such as global internet coverage is creating a growing space congestion and debris problem. Satellite operators are now required to include additional propellent to de-orbit satellites once their lifetime expires.

Still, decades-worth of upper stages used to push payloads to intended orbits continue to coast through the solar system. In one recent example, the expended third stage of the Apollo Saturn V—most likely from Apollo 12 launched in October 1969—showed up near Earth in its endless heliocentric orbit.

According to the World Economic Forum, there are more than 25,000 known pieces of space debris orbiting the earth, along with close to 1 million objects larger than 1 cm orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.

The traffic jam in low-earth orbit has prompted aerospace industry efforts to address the space-junk problem before two dead satellites or other debris collide. The cascading effect of such collisions could be disastrous.

“Collisions are catastrophic, and each collision increases the debris count exponentially,” said Dylan Taylor, CEO and Founder of Voyager Space. The startup is one of 18 signatories to a Space Industry Debris Statement released in late October. The partners said their goal is to “minimize and prevent, where possible, any new debris created.”

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New tools are emerging designed to do just that. Zurich-based RUAG Space said it has tested new navigation software that boosts the accuracy of satellite position data down to 10 centimeters. Along with providing more accurate satellite data for climate monitoring, the aerospace company said its navigation software can help satellite operators avoid space debris.

RUAG’s navigation receivers combine signals from both the

European Global Navigation Satellite System, Galileo, and the U.S. GPS system. “We are using the Galileo signal to position satellites that are in space,” said Martin Auer, study leader at RUAG Space.

“But there is currently untapped potential in the Galileo satellites as they transmit signals in several frequency bands,” Auer added. Galileo’s High Accuracy Service can be tapped for free, high-accuracy positioning. RUAG Space said the new positioning service should be available in 2002.

“The more precise the position of a satellite is known, the better a potential accident can be predicted and, for example, evasive maneuvers can be carried out,” added Heinz Reichinger of RUAG Space.

Other efforts include active removal of space debris, refueling to extend satellite lifetime, orbital transfers and “end-of-life management” schemes.

For example. Northrop Grumman launched a “mission extension vehicle” last year that docked with an operational communications satellite running out of fuel. The robotic maintenance capability promises to refuel dying satellites and perform on-orbit diagnostics and repairs.

Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency plans to launch a repair ship by the end of 2022 under a program called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Spacecraft.





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