Space Sweeping

Space Sweeping

The problem of space junk and how international cooperation can solve it.
Gabriel Blacklock


The United States should seek international cooperation for the removal of harmful space debris. Since the beginning of space exploration, there has been uncertainty regarding what governments should do to avoid accumulation of space debris. Space debris refers to any unused, manmade objects floating in space. It can be anything from used and discarded rocket parts to parts of decommissioned satellites. [1] These objects pose a potential risk for satellite use, since collisions with debris can both damage and destroy satellites. Current efforts to remove this debris are likely to be ineffective unless greater international cooperation is achieved. The US has an interest in creating international cooperation for debris removal not only because this debris is harmful to US satellites, but also because other nations’ technology for debris removal could be used to intentionally damage the US satellite force.


The accumulation of space debris is a growing problem that will only get worse. It is estimated that there are millions of pieces of debris in space; at least 23,000 of these pieces are larger than 10 cm. [1] Most debris is located in low earth orbit and travels at about 17,000 mph. The amount of debris is only projected to expand. In a domino effect often referred to as “Kessler Syndrome,” when satellites collide with space debris, it creates more space debris, which causes more collisions, and so on. [2] Because of chain reactions, single events such as a destroyed satellite can increase debris in space by 25%. [3] In addition, older satellites often fragment over time, creating even more debris. [1] The quantity of space junk is thus projected to triple by 2030, according to General William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. Marshall Kaplan, an orbital debris expert within the Space Department, argues that this may be an irreversible problem given how expensive it would be to clean and the fact that no individual nation wants to do it. Nations interested in the continued use of satellites “may have to eventually abandon all active satellites in currently used orbits.” [3]


Space debris causes numerous negative impacts for space exploration and satellite forces. In the first place, this debris often causes collisions which destroy satellites. The European Space Agency has estimated that around 500 incidents of collision or breakage have taken place as of 2018. One such example happened in 2009, when a working US satellite hit a Russian decommissioned satellite. [1] Potential collisions are a growing problem; the US government sends around 21 warnings for potential collisions each day. [4] Compounding this problem is the fact that most smaller satellites don’t have propulsion systems that would allow them to avoid large pieces of harmful debris. However, adding propulsion systems creates a host of new problems, because pressurized fuel can explode. [5] Another problem is the possibility that debris can fall back to earth. In 2018, for example, a fuel tank from a rocket landed in California. These falling parts could cause damage to human infrastructure. There are also concerns that this debris can be lethal if it collides with a spacecraft. [1] Nations including the US thus have an interest in removing debris.


Because of the problems associated with space junk, many nations, including the US, are developing methods to clean up space debris effectively. Most of these methods involve mechanically forcing satellites out of orbit and into the Earth’s atmosphere, where they burn up. For example, a Swiss development called CleanSpace One is a large satellite that captures disused satellites and moves them into lower orbits, where the disused satellites burn up in the atmosphere. Others use nonmechanical forces to eliminate satellites. One such plan from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency would involve the use of an “electromagnetic tether” to bring decommissions satellites into lower orbits. [6] Some companies are considering a more “passive” approach to dealing with space junk. According to astrodynamicist Aaron Rosengren from University of Arizona in Tucson, disused satellites could potentially be guided by operators to naturally occurring “highways” created by gravitational resonances. These highways could lead the satellites into lower orbits, burning them up. [4] Despite all these potential removal methods, until recently, no methods for debris removal had actually been tested. In 2018, however, this changed. A UK effort known as RemoveDEBRIS launched a successful mission to capture a small test satellite with a net. [2] NASA has also demonstrated its ability to remove debris. The NanoRacksRemove Debris satellite, a creation of NASA, was tested in 2018 and successfully captured a simulated nanosatellite with a net. [7]


Unfortunately, there are significant shortcomings in the US’s efforts to remove space debris. Despite NASA’s best efforts, it is incapable of solving this issue alone. Donald Kessler, former head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, points out that the models NASA uses to predict collisions are limited. Private companies often don’t share when there are accidents associated with their orbiting spacecraft. Kessler also points out that no technology currently exists for removing some of the much larger pieces of debris, though he notes that technology may improve enough that it will be possible in the future. The main shortcoming with any single nation’s effort to clean up space, however, is the cost. Given Kessler Syndrome and the ever growing abundance of junk in space, debris is likely accumulating faster than any nation could cheaply clean it up. [8] RemoveDEBRIS, the UK’s effort to clean space, has already cost 15 million Euros ($17 million) after just one test. [2] Given the enormous costs associated with efficiently removing all space debris, few individual nations have the incentive or ability to embark on such an undertaking.


The space debris removal problem is of particular significance to the US and its national security. In the first place, the US has the most to lose from space debris given that it relies on satellite technology more than any other nation. In fact, 46% of the 1,886 satellites currently in orbit belong to the US. [1] Another potential and more serious risk for the US, however, centers around China’s current efforts at defunct satellite and space junk removal. China is currently developing laser technology that it hopes will be able to remove space debris. These lasers could be fired from earth. By heating up part of the debris, it could budge the debris towards earth, where it would disintegrate. [9] However, many fear that this technology could be used to target US operational satellites. Though this laser technology would certainly be incapable of destroying entire satellites, it could potentially be used to “fry” or “dazzle” sensors, according to a report from the RAND Corporation. Some groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have posited that the energy emitted by this system is too low to cause any real harm, but RAND points out that the energy could easily be increased and used to damage US satellite sensors. Additionally, even if the lasers couldn’t be used to damage US satellites directly, the system could still provide “data of sufficient precision” to allow China to shoot down satellites with other weapons. [10]


The concerns that China will use “debris removal” technology to threaten US satellites are backed up by recent evidence and China’s past activities. According to Congress’s 2017 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China is attracted to the idea of developing technology that could shoot down US satellites. [9] In 2007, China demonstrated its ability to shoot down satellites with missiles by taking down one of its own defunct satellites. The possibility that China will use emerging laser technology to aid anti-satellite missiles or damage US satellites directly poses a security concern to the US. Given that anti-debris technology can often also be used to damage real satellites, it is likely that emerging technologies will invigorate the race to create stealth spacecraft. [1] Regardless, the United States should consider China’s actions potentially harmful to our national security.


Effectively removing space debris will require numerous changes including improved databases, international cooperation, and development of new technologies. As Kessler notes, NASA could improve its somewhat limited database of space junk by allowing private companies to report incidents anonymously. This would get around the problem of companies’ unwillingness to report. [8] In addition to improving databases, removing space debris will require newer and better technologies to remove larger objects. T

Thankfully, many nations are seeking to develop this very technology. RemoveDEBRIS, for example, is seeking to test larger “drag sail” technologies and harpoon systems to move larger defunct satellites. [11] As technology progresses, however, greater international cooperation is needed. As professor Guglielmo S. Aglietti, the Project Principal Investigator for RemoveDEBRIS notes, because of the enormous cost associated with removing debris, the UK would need international cooperation to do it effectively. [2] Because no individual nations are willing to take the full blow of the cost it would take to clean up space, the US should seek to create an international network dedicated to decreasing junk in space using all available technologies in conjunction. Seeking cooperation could also discourage China from seeking its own methods for removing debris – methods that could potentially harm the US’s satellite network.

  1. Melia Robinson, Jeremy Berke, and Skye Gould, “This map shows every state that has legalized marijuana,” Business Insider, 28 June 2018. https://m.phys.org/ news/2018-11-space-debris-cleanupnational-threat.html? fbclid=IwAR0nit0nlCi7q2IXI66L4NirR5KrS9 OAATOOxr9Brt9pQBiXUUOHRbGhvnc
  2. Nathaniel Lee, “Over half a million chunks of space trash could jeopardize space travel — but Europe has a plan to save it,” Business Insider, 1 November 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/ europe-plans-save-space-travel-removetrash-debris-2018-10? fbclid=IwAR3h9amLURJPpi2e_8qFLaLZKz 1IGfTxB-EOZSHjyBifRdLkdIEMuNxatJo
  3. Leonard David, “Ugly Truth of Space Junk: Orbital Debris Problem to Triple by 2030,” SPACE.com, 9 May 2011. https:// www.space.com/11607-space-junk-risingorbital-debris-levels-2030.html
  4. Alexandra Whitze, “The quest to conquer Earth’s space junk problem,” nature.com, 5 September 2015. https://www.nature.com/ articles/d41586-018-06170-1
  5. Sarah Scoles, “The Space Junk Problem is About to Get a Whole Lot Gnarlier,” WIRED, 31 July 2018. https:// www.wired.com/story/the-space-junkproblem-is-about-to-get-a-whole-lotgnarlier/
  6. Elizabeth Howell, “Space Junk Clean Up: 7 Wild Ways to Destroy Orbital Debris,” SPACE.com, 3 March 2014. https:// www.space.com/24895-space-junk-wildclean-up-concepts.html
  7. Dusty Langdon, “How NASA is Solving the Space Junk Problem,” Innovation & Tech Today, 3 October 2018. https:// innotechtoday.com/how-nasa-is-solving-the -space-junk-problem/
  8. Clara Moskowitz, “Space Junk Problem Is More Threatening Than Ever, Report Warns,” SPACE.com, 1 September 2011. https://www.space.com/12801-space-junkthreat-orbital-debris-report.html
  9. Joe Pappalardo, “Could a Chinese Space Junk Laser Double as a Weapon?,” Popular Mechanics, 17 January 2018. https://www.popularmechanics.com/ military/weapons/a15338238/china-spacejunk-laser-weapon-potential/
  10. Eric Heginbotham, “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard,” RAND Corporation, 2015. https://www.rand.org/pubs/ research_reports/RR392.html
  11. Jonathan Amos, “RemoveDebris: UK satellite nets ‘space junk’,” BBC News, 19 September 2018. https://www.bbc.com/ news/science-environment-45565815? fbclid=IwAR1joksxTYD4pKQgH81SMaM83 inbOh6tcoVksYk99ZKsQwtVP0Vu5FHyMQ

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