After 13 years, nearly 300 orbits and millions of scientific observations, NASA scientists directed the Cassini probe to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere last week.
They ended the mission because the spacecraft's fuel was nearly depleted, meaning that NASA would have lost the ability to control Cassini's trajectory and could not guarantee it would not crash into a sensitive site like the icy moon Enceladus, which could potentially harbor extraterrestrial life.
Saturn and Enceladus are currently more than 930 million miles from Earth, but humankind seems to have less dedication to cleanliness in space closer to home. Even as space-based services like weather forecasting and GPS become an intimate, inseparable part of our daily lives, we risk the sustainability of the space environment through sloppy practices that could make near-Earth space into a perilous demolition derby.
Right now, more than 500,000 pieces of space debris (ranging in size from that of a marble to a school bus) closely orbit the Earth. This space junk — such as defunct satellites or rocket parts left over from past launch missions — can whip around uncontrollably at 17,500 miles per hour. In space, a fleck of paint can bring about more damage than can a speeding bullet on Earth.
What’s more, this debris field is poised to grow significantly in coming years. The danger of hurtling space debris destroying crucial satellites will grow quickly and could spike suddenly. In 2009, the derelict Cosmos 2251 satellite collided with an active Iridium 33 satellite that was providing global cell phone service. Both satellites were destroyed, creating 3,000 smaller tracked pieces of debris and hundreds of thousands too small to detect but that pose dangers to other spacecraft.
The U.S. military is concerned about space debris because it threatens the critical role space plays in America’s national security, from intelligence collection to communication and navigation. But every inoperative satellite or stray object makes space more difficult and dangerous for many users, not just the military. This is something of interest to anyone who wants a good weather forecast, relies on a ridesharing app or even just loves Snapchat.
As these threats increase, my colleagues at the non-profit Aerospace Corporation are collaborating with the government, space industry and partners around the world on solutions to space debris challenges. We help the U.S. government set design requirements and assist vehicle contractors to design spacecraft that can maneuver to avoid collisions, withstand small debris strikes and move to disposal orbits or safely reenter the Earth’s atmosphere at end of life.
As the number of satellite launches grows, launch safety is increasingly important, so we have developed probability-based screening of launch trajectories to ensure that a new launch will not collide with known objects in orbit. And when it comes to the daunting process of removing space debris, Aerospace is preparing to test the Brane Craft — a super-thin, flexible sheet to envelop debris and haul it safely back into Earth’s atmosphere.
Policymakers worldwide need to recognize that dramatic growth in the commercial space sector is increasing congestion in space and represents a shift from the decades in which governments dominated the domain. New commercial players are advancing promising new space applications with real economic potential. That is why more than 10,000 satellites are slated to launch over the next decade compared to only 7,800 since the dawn of the space age. That is also why a "just say no" regulatory approach is not a viable path to space sustainability.
With so many new entrants to the space industry, including from nations with little history of spacefaring, future U.S. space industry economic competitiveness would benefit from sensible regulatory simplification to keep the U.S. as the home of choice for space companies. Today, three separate U.S. government agencies — the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — have major legal responsibilities for regulating orbital debris mitigation as part of their licensing roles.
A "one-stop shop" for regulation and licensing could facilitate both solutions to the emerging debris threat and greater regulatory responsiveness and clarity for new players. However, an overly blunt deregulatory approach could put space sustainability at risk, which is in no one's long-term interest.
Time is of the essence here. Congestion in space is no trivial issue, and the effects will eventually be widely felt. Inaction from the U.S. could cede economic and military advantage to other players. By leading the world in advancing down technically feasible and economically viable paths to space sustainability, the U.S. can continue to benefit from the growing space economy and rely on space for vital national security missions.
Jamie Morin is vice president at The Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit that runs a Federally Funded Research and Development Center to serve as a leading architect for America’s national security and civil space programs. Morin serves as executive director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, which provides objective analysis and comprehensive research to ensure well-informed, technically defensible, and forward-looking space policy.