How to stop million-dollar satellites from becoming space junk

How to stop million-dollar satellites from becoming space junk
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When a satellite is launched and placed into Earth orbit, whether it is for communications, GPS or a reconnaissance, it continues to operate as long as it has fuel or until something breaks down. Then the satellite, often worth hundreds of millions of dollars, becomes space junk, colliding with other dead satellites and becoming a hazard to space navigation.

According to Spectrum IEEE, NASA has embarked on a series of test missions to see if satellites’ operational life can be extended. These missions, including the Restore-L, will ascertain if satellites can be refueled. The challenging aspect of these missions is that modern satellites are not designed to be refueled. Restore-L will have to grapple Landsat-7 and perform surgery on it to refuel the Earth resources satellite. Future satellites will be designed to be more easily refueled.

In the meantime, DARPA intends to launch a satellite that would perform physical maintenance on another satellite. The RSGS, short for Remote Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites would perform simple repairs on satellites, such as unsticking a solar array that has not unfurled.

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NASA astronauts have proven the efficacy of repairing satellites in space. Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon, performed some repairs to Skylab, the first American space station, which had sustained damage to its micrometeoroid shield and sun shade as well as one of its solar arrays. Thus, Skylab survived to play host to three crews of astronauts who pioneered science research in low-Earth orbit.

A series of space shuttle missions repaired and enhanced the Hubble Space Telescope, extending its operational life by decades. The Hubble, which might have been rendered useless because of design flaws, is even now returning eye-popping images of the universe, advancing astronomy by quantum leaps.

In the future, robots, equipped with artificial intelligence systems and working autonomously, will keep satellites going, saving billions of dollars. Service calls in space will become a new and lucrative industry.

Future satellites will not only be designed to be refueled, but also to undergo upgrades of both their hardware and software. Such a capability will extend a satellite’s operating life from about 10-15 years to potentially decades. This development will change the economics of commercial space satellites in ways that are currently difficult to predict.

Speaking of space debris, service satellites could grapple larger, dead satellites and propel them into the Earth’s atmosphere to be destroyed rather than remain in orbit. That way the problem of space junk would steadily be addressed.

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Unfortunately, the same capacity could be used as a weapon of war. Space weapons, such as the ones that have been tested by the Chinese and the Indians, that blow up enemy satellites, create clouds of space debris that would make navigating in space hazardous. Instead, an enemy such as China or Russia could use weapons that would grapple American satellites and then plunge them into the Earth’s atmosphere. A coordinated attack on American communications, GPS, and reconnaissance satellites would be, in effect a space version of Pearl Harbor that would cripple the American economy and its ability to make war.

The United States Space Force, when it is finally created as the sixth branch of the American military, might deploy its own version of killer satellites that would attack enemy space assets and defend American satellites by intercepting enemy space weapons, crippling and then destroying them.

In war and in peace, near-Earth space will, in short order, be an active domain of satellites delivering communications and navigation services as well as data and images from Earth and other satellites designed to service and refuel them and, in the event of armed conflict, to attempt to destroy them. Space will be increasingly a venue of commerce as well as scientific discovery. Whether it becomes a theater of conflict will depend on how the United States chooses to defend its space assets and how it deters an enemy from striking at them in hopes of upsetting the balance of power on Earth. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”