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Space Plans Mean More Junk, Difficult Space Exploration

First Posted: Apr 19, 2017 04:40 AM EDT
Cosmic Cleaning: Junk In Orbit
Space exploration has forced scientists to confront a new challenge: cleaning up the waste left in its wake. Objects like satellites do not last forever. Once defunct, they continue to orbit in space, where they pose a risk of collision.
(Photo : DW English/YouTube screenshot)

Private space explorers have been planning on launching "mega constellations" of thousands of communications satellites in the future. This is to allow global wireless services on Earth. However, such a move could be dangerous. It could cause a rise in collisions as well as buildups of dangerous space junk in the Earth's orbit.

A number of companies are showing corporate interest in space. According to Space Daily, Google, SpaceX, Boeing and Samsung are among those interested in launching global broadband networks. However, to do this, they will have to deploy thousands of micro satellites into low orbit -- a feat that may prove dangerous in the future.

Dr. Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in aerospce engineering in Southampton University, and his team ran a 200-year simulation to assess possible consequences of such increase in orbital traffic. They found that it could create a 50 percent rise in catastrophic satellite collisions. These collisions could then increase the amount of space junk orbiting the Earth, which in turn raises the prospect of more collisions afterward.

At this point, there are approximately 750,000 objects larger than a centimeter orbiting the Earth, which means that junk surrounding the planet is already dangerous for crafts that attempt to explore space. Impacts on space hardware, for instance, could deliver the energy equivalent of an exploding hand grenade, making space exploration dangerous at this point.

BBC News reported that Dr. Holger Krag, head of the Space Debris Office at the European Space Agency, said that the mega-constellation proposals had to improve from their past performances. He said that space explorers today have already failed to implement mitigation measures, including post-mission disposal on removing spacecraft from orbit.

To avoid probable collisions in the future, Dr. Lewis wants to ensure a 90 percent success rate of space exploration companies to minimize the number of satellites launched, and to lessen the amount of space junk in the Earth's lower orbit. Companies "even with good intentions it remains an extremely high technological challenge," he said.

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