Tag Archives: space debris

Mining the Moon: The First Mover Advantage

The US government is starting to lay down the groundwork for diplomacy on the moon. On 15 May, 2020 NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine released a set of principles that will govern the Artemis Accords on the exploration of the moon. The accords are named after NASA’s Artemis programme, the US initiative to explore the moon, with a planned launch of astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. Other countries are also increasingly turning towards the moon, which is concerning when a landing on the moon can send up clouds of potentially hazardous dust that travel a long way across the surface and even into orbit…

At the moment, there is little practical international law governing activities on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 deals with general space exploration, while the more specific Moon Agreement of 1984 states that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of all mankind”, prohibiting the ownership of any part of the moon or any resources from the moon….However, no nation capable of human space flight has signed the Moon Agreement, effectively rendering it moot. In fact, in April 2020, US president Donald Trump issued an executive order supporting moon mining and taking advantage of the natural resources of space.

The Artemis Accords aim to protect historic locations like the Apollo landing sites but encourage mining in other areas. They also promote transparency and communication between nations, requiring signatories to share their lunar plans, register any spacecraft sent to or around the moon and release scientific data to the public.  That transparency requirement might be a stumbling block for potential parties to the accords, says Forczyk. “I really don’t know how much countries are going to be willing to share some of their more delicate, sensitive information,” she says. “

The rest of the stipulations of the Artemis Accords are about safety: nations will be able to set “safety zones” to protect their activities on the moon, they will have to work to mitigate the effects of debris in orbit around the moon and they will agree to provide emergency assistance to any astronauts in distress.

Rather than attempting to put together an international treaty, which could be difficult to negotiate before NASA’s next crewed launch to the moon, the US will sign bilateral agreements with individual countries.

Excerpts from Leah Crane, NASA’s Artemis Accords aim to lay down the law of the land on the moon, New Scientist, May 20, 2020

Cleaning Up Space Junk

A four-armed robotic junk collector will be launched into space by the European Space Agency in what it says will be the first mission to remove an item of debris from orbit. About 3,500 defunct satellites and an estimated 750,000 smaller fragments are orbiting the Earth at an average speed of 20,000km/h.  Unless a clear-up operation is mounted, the chances of collisions will escalate as thousands more satellites are put into orbit.

The ClearSpace-1 mission, scheduled for launch in 2025, will cost €120m and will grab a single piece of junk. But the agency hopes the mission will pave the way for a wide-reaching clear-up operation, with Esa’s director general calling for new rules that would compel those who launch satellites to take responsibility for removing them from orbit once they are retired from use.  “Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” said Jan Wörner, Esa’s director general. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”

The target for ClearSpace-1 is a piece of junk called Vespa, which was left in an orbit around 800km above the Earth by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. Vespa weighs 100kg – around the size of a small satellite – and was selected because it has a simple shape and sturdy construction, which make it unlikely to fragment when it is grabbed. The “chaser” ClearSpace space probe will be launched into the target orbit where it will track down Vespa, grab it using a quartet of robotic arms and drag it out of orbit, with Vespa and the chaser both burning up in the atmosphere on the way down to Earth. A future ambition is to create a clear-up robot that could eject junk into the atmosphere, before continuing to capture and de-orbit other pieces of junk.

European Space Agency to launch space debris collector in 2025, Guardian, Dec. 9, 2019

The Traffic Congested Space: Collision Avoidance

On September 3, 2019, it was the first time that European Space Agence (ESA) performed a ‘collision avoidance manoeuvre’ to protect one of its spacecraft from colliding with a satellite in a large constellation,  a SpaceX satellite in the Starlink constellation.  Constellations are fleets of hundreds up to thousands of spacecraft working together in orbit. They are expected to become a defining part of Earth’s space environment in the next few years.  As the number of satellites in space dramatically increases, close approaches between two operated spacecraft will occur more frequently. Compared with such ‘conjunctions’ with space debris – non-functional objects including dead satellites and fragments from past collisions – these require coordination efforts, to avoid conflicting actions. 

Today, the avoidance process between two operational satellites is largely manual and ad hoc – and will no longer be practical as the number of alerts rises with the increase in spaceflight.
 “This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved,” explains Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety at ESA.   “Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails – an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic.”

ESA is proposing an automated risk estimation and mitigation initiative as part of its space safety activities. This will provide and demonstrate the types of technology needed to automate the collision avoidance process, allowing machine generated, coordinated and conflict-free manoeuvre decisions to speed up the entire process – something desperately needed to protect vital space infrastructure in the years to come.

Data is constantly being issued by the 18th Space Control Squadron of the US Air Force, who monitor objects orbiting in Earth’s skies, providing information to operators about any potential close approach.  With this data, ESA and others are able to calculate the probability of collision between their spacecraft and all other artificial objects in orbit. 

In August 2019, the US data suggested a potential ‘conjunction’ [collision] at 11:02 UTC on Monday, 2 September, between ESA’s Aeolus satellite and Starlink44 – one of the first 60 satellites recently launched in SpaceX’s mega constellation, planned to be a 12 000 strong fleet by mid-2020.  As days passed, the probability of collision continued to increase, and by Wednesday 28 August the team decided to reach out to Starlink to discuss their options. Within a day, the Starlink team informed ESA that they had no plan to take action at this point.**  ESA’s threshold for conducting an avoidance manoeuvre is a collision probability of more than 1 in 10 000, which was reached for the first time on August 29, 2019 evening.  An avoidance manoeuvre was prepared which would increase Aeolus’ altitude by 350 m, ensuring it would comfortably pass over the other satellite, and the team continued to monitor the situation.

On September 2, 2019, the commands triggered a series of thruster burns at 10:14, 10:17 and 10:18 UTC, half an orbit before the potential collision.  About half an hour after the conjunction was predicted, Aeolus contacted home as expected. This was the first reassurance that the manoeuvre was correctly executed and the satellite was OK.

Since the first satellite launch in 1957, more than 5500 launches have lifted over 9000 satellites into space. Of these, only about 2000 are currently functioning, which explains why 90% of ESA’s avoidance manoeuvres are the result of derelict and uncontrollable ‘space debris’.    In the years to come, constellations of thousands of satellites are set to change the space environment, vastly increasing the number of active, operational spacecraft in orbit.  This new technology brings enormous benefits to people on Earth, including global internet access and precise location services, but constellations also bring with them challenges in creating a safe and sustainable space environment.

This example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation,” explains Holger.  “This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated manoeuvre coordination.”  As the number of satellites in orbit rapidly increases, today’s ‘manual’ collision avoidance process will become impossible, and automated systems are becoming necessary to protect our space infrastructure.

**On August28th, 2019, SpaceX informed ESA via email that the company did not intend to move the Starlink probe.   At that time, the probability of collision was about 1 in 50,000, according to SpaceX, which is too low to require any preventive action.  The ESA contacted SpaceX daily about its evolving calculations, but the agency did not receive any additional replies after the original email response. SpaceX acknowledges that it failed to communicate due to a bug in its communication system and missed the emails about a higher probability of collision.

Excerpts from ESA Spacecraft Dodges Satellite Constellation, ESA, Sept. 3, 2019 &

A bug in SpaceX’s communication system kept the company in the dark about potential satellite collision, The Verge, Sept. 4, 2019

The Space Rat Race

India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth’s orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier…New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China’s activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.  Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

China’s success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.  In the back of Indian and Japanese officials’ minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In December 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.  There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.  Japan and India had a combined 132 — 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.

Excerpts fromNUPUR SHAW India and Japan awaken to risks of superpower space race, Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 8, 2019

Killing Machines: Tiny Spy Satellites

As long as we’ve been launching spy satellites into space, we’ve been trying to find ways to hide them from the enemy. Now, thanks to the small satellite revolution—and a growing amount of space junk—America has a new way to mask its spying in orbit…

The National Reconnaissance Office, the operator of many of the U.S.’s spy sats, refused to answer any questions about ways to hide small satellites in orbit.  In 2014, Russia launched a trio of communications satellites. Like any other launch, spent stages and space debris were left behind in space. Air Force Space Command dutifully catalogued them, including a nondescript piece of debris called Object 2014-28E.  Nondescript until it started to move around in space, that is. One thing about orbits; they are supposed to be predictable. When something moves in an unexpected way, the debris is not debris but a spacecraft. And this object was flying close to the spent stages, maneuvering to get closer.  This fueled speculation that the object could be a prototype kamikaze-style sat killer. Other less frantic speculation postulated that it could be used to examine other sats in orbit, either Russia’s or those operated by geopolitical foes. Either way, the lesson was learned…

Modern tracking radar is supposed to map space junk better than ever before. But small spy satellites that will hide in the cloud of space debris may go undetected, even by the most sophisticated new radar or Earth-based electronic signals snooping.

Excerpts from Joe Pappalardo, Space Junk Could Provide a Perfect Hiding Spot for Tiny Spy Satellites, Popular Mechanics, Nov. 30, 2018

Space Junk Removal

The first experiment designed to demonstrate active space-debris removal in orbit reached the International Space Station on April 4, 2018 aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.    The RemoveDebris experiment, designed by a team led by the University of Surrey in the U.K. as part of a 15.2 million euro ($18.7 million), European Union (EU)-funded project, is about the size of a washing machine and weighs 100 kilograms (220 lbs.).

It carries three types of technologies for space-debris capture and active deorbiting — a harpoon, a net and a drag sail. It will also test a lidar system for optical navigation that will help future chaser spacecraft better aim at their targets.

“For this mission, we are actually ejecting our own little cubesats,” Jason Forshaw, RemoveDebris project manager at the University of Surrey, said last year. “These little cubesats are maybe the size of a shoebox, very small. We eject them and capture them with the net.”

“We are testing these four technologies in this demonstration mission, and we want to see whether they work or not,” said Forshaw, referring to the harpoon, net, drag sail and lidar. “If they work, then that would be fantastic, and then these technologies could be used on future missions.”

Some 40,000 space objects — the vast majority of which are defunct satellites and fragments from collisions — are currently being tracked by the U.S.-based Space Surveillance Network. It is estimated that some 7,600 metric tons (8,378 tons) of junk hurtle around the Earth at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, threatening functioning spacecraft, according to a statement from the University of Surrey….

[T]hese same means of capturing debris could easily be used to destroy or otherwise interfere with functional orbital assets [i.e, a functional satellite], most of which are not equipped with a rapid means of evasion or any other form of defense. To a harpoon, net, or drag sail, there is little difference between an out of control hunk of Soviet era rocket and an operational communications or reconnaissance satellite.

Excerpts from BY ALEX HOLLINGS, SpaceX delivers prototype space junk collector to the ISS, but the experiment has serious defense implications, SOFREP.com, Apr. 6, 2018;

This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit, Space.com, Apr. 6, 2018

The First to Shoot…from Space

North Korea’s preparations to launch a more advanced reconnaissance satellite with a high-resolution scanning capability threaten to push Asia’s space race deeper into the military theater.  The Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-exploration satellite, likely to be packaged with a separate communications satellite, will technically allow North Korea to transmit data down to the ground for the first time, thus offering real-time intelligence for potential ballistic-missile strikes.

This is well short of the technological capacity needed to deploy orbital weapon systems, but will cause some unease among Asian power-brokers China, Japan and India as they pour money into the last strategic frontier of outer space.  Space programs in Asia have largely been driven by competition for the US$300 billion global commercial transponders market, which is expected to double by 2030 if demand holds.

A shift toward miniature satellites of less than 20 kilograms, mostly used by governments and smaller companies, has drawn nations as diverse as Singapore, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea into a field led by Japan and China, with India a more recent player.

Japan placed two satellites in different orbits for the first time on December 2017, displaying a technical edge aimed at reducing launch costs for commercial clients. India announced this week that it had successfully tested a GSLV Mark III rocket that can lift a 4-ton satellite into orbit. In 2017, it managed to launch 104 satellites of varying sizes in just one operation. China has loftier ambitions, including a lunar landing some time in 2018, after sending a roving module down a steep crater on the moon in 2013. About 40 Chinese launches are likely in 2018, mainly to boost communications.  India and Japan are both locked in undeclared space races with China that go well beyond commercial rivalries and have muddied the debate over North Korea’s shadowy aims….

“Militarization” refers to any systems that enhance the capability of forces in a conventional setting, such as intelligence, communications and surveillance. “Weaponization” is the physical deployment of weapons in outer space or in a ground mode where they can be used to attack and destroy targets in orbit.  The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but the US has blocked efforts to ban space weapons outright. In 2007, Washington said it would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space.”

Excerpts from  ALAN BOYD,  Asia’s Space Race Gathers Pace, Asia Times, Jan. 6, 2018