Space junk is a growing concern for satellite builders and space companies. “That is a problem,” says the chairman of the OHB space company, Marco Fuchs. Binding rules are necessary so that satellites have to be cleared away after their end of life and should not pose any danger. “The basic rules are there, but it’s a question of sanctions and monitoring,” says Fuchs, who is also Vice President of the Federal Association of the German Aerospace Industry (BDLI), the German press agency.
It must also be prevented that “malicious” space junk is produced. “We now had the case of a deliberate shooting down by Russia. Of course, that’s catastrophic when you contaminate entire space areas with junk to show that you can shoot down satellites. There have to be sanctions.”
Russia recently shot down a disused spy satellite with a special missile. The head of the Roscosmos space agency, Dmitri Rogozin, did not rule out further tests in principle. On the question of New York Timeson whether Russia would shoot down more satellites, he said: “No rather than yes.” The remains of the satellite posed no threat to the ISS.
Space junk – a global challenge
Space junk is a global challenge in which all around 100 national space agencies now have to ensure that the rules are adhered to, stressed Fuchs. This works in Europe and also in the USA. There, for example, NASA or in Germany the German Aerospace Center (DLR) watch over precisely that new satellites do not later become space junk.
In the case of small satellites, for example, the overall design ensures that they enter the earth’s atmosphere again and burn up at the end of their predictable life cycle. Using model calculations, scientists estimate that the earth’s orbit contains a total of around one million parts that are larger than one centimeter and 330 million particles that are larger than one millimeter.
Laws instead of guidelines
According to DLR, guidelines for avoiding space debris have existed for many years. Among other things, these would provide for satellites to sink again after 25 years at the latest, to burn up and thus to disappear. “These are general guidelines, also recognized worldwide,” emphasizes astrophysicist Manuel Metz from DLR. But they are “just” guidelines. However, binding contracts and national space laws are necessary.
The reduction and avoidance of space junk is in the self-interest of satellite builders and space companies, in order to enable smooth and trouble-free operation in space. The so-called cascade effect is a particular danger. In the process, large pieces of scrap, some measuring several meters in length, collided with other objects, which in turn would result in thousands of smaller pieces of scrap. Therefore you have to remove the larger objects first.