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The cost of space debris

on 12 August 2020

With hundreds of satellites launched every year, in-space collisions and the creation of fast-moving fragments of space debris – or ‘space junk’ – are becoming increasingly likely, threatening our continued human and technological presence in space.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently published its first report on the economic cost of space debris. Using research from numerous sources, including data and analysis from ESA’s Space Debris Office, it outlines the dangers ahead if we do not act, and what can be done to ensure our future in space.

The institutional and commercial use of space is growing at an increasing rate. The number of satellites in orbit will further increase with the launch of ‘mega-constellations’ for satellite broadband, some comprising thousands of satellites, and with that the risk of collisions and more space debris increases.

Just one collision or explosion in space creates thousands of small, fast-moving small shards of debris able to damage or destroy a functioning satellite

On the costs of space debris, the report states that “space debris protection and mitigation measures are already costly to satellite operators, but the main risks and costs lie in the future, if the generation of debris spins out of control and renders certain orbits unusable for human activities.”

According to the report, “comprehensive national and international mitigation measures exist, but compliance is insufficient to stabilise the orbital environment.”

As more satellites are launched into orbit, current ‘manual’ methods for avoiding in-space collisions, and the creation of debris, will not be enough. As such, ESA is developing ‘automated collision avoidance’ technologies that will make the process of avoiding collisions more efficient.

You can read more findings from the report, as well as ESA’s efforts to mitigate the problem at this link.

Image credit: ClearSpace