My departure for the International Space Station approaches. Soon I will be 400 km above Earth floating in a spacecraft in the vacuum of space. A new danger is developing, one of space debris. If a piece of space debris were to hit the International Space Station, our mission could be over. At worst, we may only have time to enter our Soyuz spacecraft and return to Earth.
I trained for seven years for this six-month mission in space. During my training I learnt to react to catastrophic scenarios, which was when I first heard about the new menace of space debris. The three worst-case scenarios for us on the Space Station are a fire, toxic spills and a loss of pressure. A probable cause of the latter is a hole in the International Space Station caused by space debris.
Of course not all space debris would penetrate the hull of the Space Station. It is shielded to withstand an impact by debris up to 1 cm in diameter. Larger pieces of debris are monitored from Earth. Their orbits are known and if they pose a risk to the Station, engineers can modify the outpost’s orbit to avoid a collision.
The International Space Station moves four to five times a year to avoid space debris, but the risks are increasing – and not only for the Space Station.
Humans have launched over 6000 rockets into space up to now. Rocket stages, satellites and space stations are lying dormant in orbit. At the beginning of the space age, nobody thought about the problem these objects would create.
It is humbling to think that space was a pure environment untouched by humans until we came and polluted it with old satellites. There are now 29 000 objects larger than 10 cm orbiting our planet, some as large as 10 meters. These objects are a hazard to spacecraft operators as they could damage and destroy operational satellites if undetected.
The space community should reflect on how to responsibly plan our activities by looking not only to the skies but also down to Earth as this problem concerns us all. We all benefit from space and it is time to consider the consequences of our actions and work to clean our polluted space and reduce the causes of new debris.
If we do nothing now, it will be too late in 30 years’ time. The orbits are becoming too polluted. Similar to climate change, we must act now and cannot wait until it is too late.
We need to radically change the way we design spacecraft and satellites so that we will no longer need to actively avoid them at the end of their life. I believe that that is the future and the change is taking place.
ESA launched the Clean Space initiative in 2012. They are working on technologies to reduce space debris and avoid creating more. I enjoy working with them and I will continue to promote their activities. As the team says “the clean way is the only way.”