On November 15, 2021, Russia successfully tested its anti-satellite missile capabilities by destroying Cosmos 1408, a non-operational satellite. The test smashed the satellite into the cloud of over 1,500 bits of debris large enough to be tracked (along with many smaller fragments), adding to an already growing and serious problem.
Even fully functional, defunct spacecraft are classified as space trash because they are large enough to be tracked and tracked from Earth. While having a lot of these items in orbit isn’t ideal, it is feasible to be able to work around them in most instances. The main problem right now is the expanding field of small-scale junk in LEO (Low Earth Orbit).
Whether formed via collisions between spacecraft, purposeful destruction of satellites or fragmentation owing to errors in design, small bits of debris have become a by-product of satellite activity since Sputnik 1 launched in 1957. Despite their small size, these bits are notable because they move at speeds of many kilometers per second. Even the smallest bits of debris carry enormous quantities of energy into collisions at such high speeds and have tremendous potential for destruction.
We are now beginning to experience the direct repercussions of space debris for the very first time as it has commenced disrupting operations beyond the atmosphere. One of the immediate implications of the recent missile test was that the 7 members of the International Space Station (ISS) crew were forced to seek refuge in return pods due to safety concerns. Since then, debris (albeit not proven to be fragmented owing to this new accident) has forced the cancellation of a planned spacewalk because, once again, assurances about the crew’s safety could not be guaranteed.
Many other countries condemned the test, which took place on November 15th. The United States has been the most outspoken of these, accusing Russia of irresponsible behavior and risking the safety of the International Space Station crew. While Russia denies that its actions have had any such consequences, the problem is clear to all.
In 1978, Donald Kessler predicted the uncontrolled expansion of the wreckage around Earth. Now, Kessler syndrome is a well-known term in this field, and it relates to how a single debris impact generates even more debris, increasing the likelihood and pace of future collisions. As a result of all of this, there is a risk that LEO will become too dangerous an impediment for all but the most well-prepared operations to pass through.
The fact that this effect was identified in 1978 and continues to be a problem today is partly due to parties turning a blind eye to the issue. More recently, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) has developed realistic operation rules that have gone a long way toward safeguarding the future of satellite operation by establishing mitigation strategies to slow the spread of this issue. However, it is insufficient on its own and will not be able to improve the existing situation.
The increasing business interest in the satellite mega-constellations has only exacerbated the problem. With firms like SpaceX and OneWeb vying to put their constellations of thousands of satellites into orbit, it’s apparent that the satellite population will continue to expand. As a result, rather than continuing with current patterns of operation, ongoing dialogue regarding the most sustainable strategy to limit this expansion is required.