|By Philip Hattis, Ph.D. and Distinguished Staff, Draper Laboratory|
The world is critically dependent on satellites in Earth orbit for global communications, navigation, weather forecasts, environment and resource monitoring, and numerous security functions. But, imagine a world where such functions as hurricane tracking, climate change monitoring, communications in natural disaster zones, arms treaty verification and warnings of regional conditions, which can promote rapid spread of infectious diseases, were no longer viable. That could be the consequence in the future if we do not eliminate orbital debris.
Although active platforms that provide important capabilities from Earth orbit constitute a very small fraction of the man-made objects whizzing around the world, these platforms are at increasing risk from the ever-growing population of orbital debris. (Above image is showing how most orbital debris is in low Earth orbit, where the space station flies.)
Debris includes dead satellites, spent rocket stages used to launch satellites, pieces of spacecraft shed intentionally during satellite deployment or by accident, and many fragments of satellites and stages. The fragments have a variety of origins. Old rocket stages have sometimes exploded due to pressure from residual propellant. The Soviet Union sometimes intentionally broke up military spacecraft at the end of their life, and its satellites with nuclear reactors shed liquid sodium coolant. Some intentional orbital collisions have occurred to demonstrate anti-satellite weapons. And, now we have started to see accidental collisions of orbital debris with operational spacecraft.
Those collisions may be an initial manifestation of the Kessler Syndrome. More than 30 years ago, Donald Kessler predicted that as the debris population grew in Earth orbit, collisions would occur, creating more debris, resulting in increased collision frequencies with associated growing risk to spacecraft.
A related problem is the physical impact on the Earth’s surface of debris objects from spacecraft, which do not completely burn up in the atmosphere when they fall out of Earth orbit. The reentry and breakup over the Pacific Ocean of the 6.5 ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite on September 23, 2011, for example, garnered international attention from the media because of a very small but finite risk that the debris could have landed in populated areas. More consequential was the Soviet Cosmos 954 satellite reentry on January 24, 1978, because it spread pieces of a spent nuclear reactor over a wide area in the Canadian Northwest Territories, which necessitated a 9-month cleanup operation to prevent subsequent harm to humans and the environment!
The velocity of an orbital object makes its collision with another object potentially lethal. Spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) move at 7500 m/sec. Orbits of objects are in different planes around the Earth and at different inclinations (the angle of the orbit with respect to the equator). Consequently, these
Image of Syncom communications satellite, which NASA began developing in 1960.
Debris in orbit can remain for very long times. When an object is in a very low orbit, drag effects of the thin upper atmosphere of the Earth cause a gradual loss of altitude and eventual reentry of a spacecraft. As the altitude of the orbit increases, these effects decrease rapidly, thus making the typical life of an object in orbit decades to centuries.
Given the energy of orbiting debris, an object as small as one centimeter can be deadly to a satellite with which it collides. The current space surveillance state-of-the-art for debris tracking can monitor objects bigger than 10 cm in LEO. It is estimated that there are more than 500,000 orbiting objects that are in the one cm class.
Sophisticated models of the current LEO environment indicate that it is now unstable. That means that even if all launch activity were to stop, satellite collisions with debris will occur. That collision frequency is now projected to result in one major accident involving a live satellite about every five years but will increase in frequency as collisions increase the number of debris objects. Continued launch activity without debris removal will make LEO more unstable, accelerating collisions. Absent dedicated responses and mitigation, the expected survival time of any spacecraft in LEO could eventually become too short to justify its launch.
Limited Action in Process
Limited actions are already being taken to reduce the likelihood of satellite collisions. Application of standards by some countries now reduces generation of debris from newly launched objects. This is accomplished by satellite designs that avoid intentional shedding of objects that remain in orbit. New, spent rocket boosters are now vented at the end of their mission to prevent their subsequent explosion in orbit. Efforts are also underway to improve surveillance of space objects to better predict potential collisions. This would allow live spacecraft with maneuver capability to better evade objects with which they are at risk of collision. However, none of these measures reduce the number of objects already in orbit, prevent collisions of dead objects or stop generation of debris from intentional anti-satellite weapon tests. Also, since objects smaller than 10 cm are not now seen and tracked, their collisions with spacecraft cannot be anticipated and evaded.
Proposals have been made to require satellites to remove themselves from orbit within a defined time after their mission completion (e.g., 25 years). However, few satellite operators want to reserve some of their limited on-board propellant supply to accelerate de-orbit of a spacecraft, and other methods that might accelerate dead satellite orbital decay have not generally been applied yet.
Skylab above the Earth as seen during the Skylab 4 mission.
The National Space Policy of the United States released on June 28, 2010, addresses preservation of the space environment through debris prevention and situational awareness improvement. It also directs NASA and the Department of Defense to pursue research and development into how to mitigate and remove oribital debris. Included in the NASA response is creation of a National Research Council Committee for the Assessment of NASA’s Orbital Debris Programs that is reviewing NASA’s initiatives to address and mitigate the effects of meteoroids and orbital debris both in Earth orbit and upon reentry.
Long-Term Solutions Needed
In the long term, the only solution to assuring that LEO remains safe is to find means to remove debris, thus addressing both the technical and political challenges posed by implementing solutions to the menace. The following four recommendations are necessary steps to begin tackling orbital debris issues:
If international policy issues can be addressed, then the necessary technology development and debris removal demonstrations can be pursued. Maximizing the amount of debris mass removed from orbit should be the initial objective, which can be accomplished, even with limited removal system capability, by focusing first on removing the limited number of large debris objects.
The good news is that awareness within the space operations community of the menace posed by orbital debris has increased greatly in recent years and many promising mitigation and removal technologies have been proposed. However, the problem cannot be systematically tackled without full political involvement of space faring nations to overcome the legal, economic and threat issues posed by debris removal. The bad news is that no clear path currently exists to overcoming the international political parts of the problem.Issue No. 16, 2012
Philip Hattis, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Staff member at Draper Laboratory and holds the highest technical ranking. He has technical and strategic planning responsibilities that have applied to systems for climate monitoring, advanced human space flight, ballistic missile defense, autonomous space flight, precision Mars landing, advanced satellite navigation and reusable launch vehicles. Hattis was the thesis supervisor for more than one dozen MIT graduate students during their time as Draper Laboratory Fellows, including astronauts Janice Voss and Greg Chamitoff. One of his many technical contributions includes responsibility for a substantial portion of the development of the Space Shuttle’s orbital flight control system. Hattis also led Draper’s Global Climate Monitoring Conference in October 2010, which convened leaders from the U.S. Government, DoD, academia and industry to frame the operational problem. He holds a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT, an M.S. in Aeronautics from California Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University.
Draper Laboratory is a not-for-profit research and development organization focused on the design, development and deployment of advanced technological solutions for the nation’s most challenging problems in security, space exploration, healthcare and energy. Expertise includes the areas of guidance, navigation and control systems; fault-tolerant computing; advanced algorithms and software solutions; modeling and simulation; and MEMS and multichip module technology.
Receive livebetter eMagazine; it’s free. One Earth. One Family. Live Better. Be Part of It.