Armada of satellites in orbit can close for us space

When this week, India was hit by one of their own satellites with a rocket, NASA administrator Jim Breidenstein not surprised. However, expressed his dissatisfaction: “to Create a field of space debris deliberately wrong… If we samuari space, we will not refund it.” The space debris problem will only get worse: dead satellites, spent rockets, debris from previous collisions all threaten working satellites, humans in space, and even the International space station.

It is too early to talk about a cloud of debris left after the Indian tests. The Pentagon “laid eyes” on 250 separate parts, according to Reuters. However, although the collision probably formed a cloud of metal fragments, it happened at a relatively low altitude. Most of them will fall to the Ground within a few months.

How much orbiting debris?

And although Breidenstein was not happy with the Indian test, the experts on space debris is much more problematic. The alleged “mega-constellation” of satellites can lead to much more serious and long lasting problems.

About half of all space junk today formed only by two events: anti-satellite test by the Chinese government in 2007 and the accidental collision of two satellites in 2009.

However, there are plans to make low earth orbit more populated. For example, the startup OneWeb wants to put into orbit 900 small satellites to provide broadband Internet in areas where it is currently unavailable. At the same time, SpaceX received permission for the placement of 12,000 satellites in low earth orbits. Other companies such as Telesat and LeoSat, have similar plans.

The sudden influx of recruits can cause serious problems. In paper presented at the 69th International Astronautical Congress in Bremen last October, Glenn Peterson, a researcher of the Aerospace Corporation, calculated the consequences of the introduction of thousands of satellites for communications, surveillance and reconnaissance low earth orbit, where most of the cosmic debris.

If all the mega-constellation will be launched, according to estimates by the Peterson modern tracking technology will generate more than 67,000 “warning of collisions” annually. Operators then have to choose to make hundreds of helpful satellite maneuvers per day, or risk a small probability of collision.

In January, the company producing radar images synthetic aperture Capella decided to move his only companion Denali, when faced with the probability of crashing in a commercial “cubsat”. “The probability of collision was at about 12%,” says CEO of the Capella Payam Banazadeh. “It’s a big risk and we treated it very seriously.”

It was the first time that Capella used the same engine as the Denali, and the whole maneuver took a few days. Future maneuvers will be faster, but still require attention — especially if they have to spend several times a day, says Banazadeh. “Instead of collecting the images in a certain area, you change the orbit, wasting time and resources, and then check ex post”.

And yet, if one missed the alarm will be correct, the consequences can be catastrophic. No one suggested that the Iridium could score the satellite and to save money, but the orbital environment becomes more populated and competitive.

“Well if I’m in space, it does not mean that others will,” says Banazadeh. “May need a few bad actors to become much worse.”

Very soon the US will be a network of advanced ground-based radars known as the Space Fence. It should improve the accuracy of predictions about possible collisions. But this technology is a double-edged sword, says Peterson. Where modern radars can reliably track only 20,000 + pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimeters, the sensors of the future will be able to detect fragments up to 2 centimeters, and their number will reach 200 000.

Peterson calculated that even if all the objects are tracked precisely, larger constellation will be confronted with several hundreds of false alarms annually. Some operators may be tempted to take a chance and go for a close pass with an unlikely collision, but any “meeting” will be catastrophic at speeds of 30,000 kilometers per hour.

If we make a mistake, the space may be permanently inaccessible to us. You have the solution? Tell us in our chat in Telegram.


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