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The current state of space debris

The current state of space debris
Despite progress in technology, and in understanding the space environment, the need for significantly increasing the pace in applying proposed measures to reduce debris creation has been identified at Europe’s largest-ever space debris conference (more via International Consensus on Debris Threat). Credit: European Space Agency

Swirling fragments of past space endeavors are trapped in orbit around Earth, threatening our future in space. Over time, the number, mass and area of these debris objects grows steadily, boosting the risk to functioning satellites.

ESA’s Space Debris Office constantly monitors this ever-evolving debris situation, and every year publishes a report on the current state of the debris environment.

Since the beginning of the space age in 1957, tons of rockets, spacecraft and instruments have been launched to space. Initially, there was no plan for what to do with them at the end of their lives. Since then, numbers have continued to increase and explosions and collisions in space have created hundreds of thousands of shards of dangerous debris.

“The biggest contributor to the current space debris problem is explosions in orbit, caused by left-over energy—fuel and batteries—onboard spacecraft and rockets. Despite measures being in place for years to prevent this, we see no decline in the number of such events. Trends towards end-of-mission disposal are improving, but at a slow pace,” explains Holger Krag, Head of the Space Safety Program.

Reducing debris creation

“In view of the constant increase in space-traffic, we need to develop and provide technologies to make debris prevention measures fail-safe, and ESA is doing just that through its Space Safety Program. In parallel, regulators need to monitor the status of space systems as well as global adherence to debris mitigation under their jurisdiction more closely”.

The current state of space debris
There are many ways debris can be created in space. For each “fragmentation event” thousands of pieces of dangerous debris can be added to Earth’s orbit. Credit: European Space Agency

International guidelines and standards now exist making it clear how we can reach a sustainable used of space:

  • design rockets and spacecraft to minimize the amount of “shedding” – material becoming detached during launch and operation, due to the harsh conditions of space
  • prevent explosions by releasing stored energy, “passivating” spacecraft once at the end of their lives
  • Move defunct missions out the way of working satellites—either by de-orbiting them or moving them to a “graveyard orbit”
  • Prevent in-space crashes through careful choice of orbits and by performing “collision avoidance maneuvers.”

Many space agencies, private companies and other space actors are changing their behavior to adhere to these guidelines—but is this enough?

Worrying trends

We’re making more and more debris

The number of debris objects, their combined mass, and the total area they take up has been steadily increasing since the beginning of the space age. This is further fuelled by a large number of in-orbit break-ups of spacecraft and rocket stages.

The total area that space debris takes up is important as it is directly related to how many collisions we expect in