Every once in a while, a piece of space junk hurtles through the atmosphere and crashes into Earth. Just last month, a 23-ton chunk of space debris fell – safely, thankfully – into the south-central Pacific Ocean. The debris came from the October 31 launch of China's Long March 5B rocket, which has been notorious for its uncontrolled returns to Earth.
You might not have heard very much about these crashes, but there's a good chance you will in the future. As the space economy takes off, our low-Earth orbit (LEO) highways are getting crowded. That raises the likelihood of collisions – and of crash landings on Earth.
"Even though all of outer space might be infinite, where we put satellites are very specific regions," astrodynamicist Moriba Jah tells ZDNET. "They're becoming more congested."
Jah is the chief scientist for Privateer, a recently launched company backed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Privateer's mission is to bring more visibility to our space superhighways, where satellites zoom past one another at 17,000 miles per hour. The company wants to bring that visibility with proprietary knowledge graph technology, which allows it to create visualizations of all the satellites and debris in space. With its data engine, Privateer has created Wayfinder, an open-access tool that lets others in the space economy create the visualizations they need to occupy low-Earth orbit safely.
Jah also wants to convince lawmakers and the public that space should be considered part of our 'environment' – deserving of all the same considerations and respect as our land, sea and air. Because it's a finite resource, space should enjoy environmental protection too, he says.
That means companies and governments launching rockets or satellites into space need to find responsible ways to bring their decommissioned space junk back to Earth – as well as responsible ways to manage everything still in orbit.
Without that kind of space stewardship, randomly falling space junk will continue to threaten Earthlings with physical harm. Beyond that, collisions in space have the potential to disrupt all facets of everyday life. There's a growing list of services – including communication tools, means of navigation and financial services, just to name a few – that rely on satellites to function.
By letting space get crowded with junk, Jah says, we risk losing the ability to use space for humanity's benefit.
"We as humans know more about humans and the Earth because of robots in the sky we call satellites than by any other means of information. Things are in jeopardy of being lost because of the increasing amount of crap that we have on orbit," he says.
To understand the scope of the problem, consider how rapidly humans have been launching spacecraft into the sky over the past decade. In 2016, there were around 1,700 satellites in low-Earth orbit, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. As of May 2022, there were more than 5,400. By 2030, some estimates have said there could be as many as 57,000 satellites in orbit.
"Countries are rushing to get stuff into orbit because there's a lot of money and influence to be had as a consequence," Jah says. "And that's being done, to a great extent, to the detriment of the environment."
Given how quickly our orbital superhighways are filling up, the US Federal Communications Commission recently passed new rules requiring satellite operators to keep the lanes clear of unwanted junk. Under the new rules, satellite operators in low-Earth orbit have to haul away their non-functioning satellites within five years of completing their missions.
The rules have yet to be fully embraced by the international community – or even all lawmakers in the US. Yet they represent an improvement from the current guidelines that recommend removing space junk after 25 years. The new five-year rule has plenty of supporters in the space industry because, like Jah, they understand that space is a shared, finite resource.
"It's a true global commons – space is up there, and no one owns any of it," Mark Dickinson, deputy CTO of the satellite service provider Inmarsat, tells ZDNET. And that's why it's important for all satellite operators to keep track of their own spacecraft.
"If I have a bad day, I can cause them a problem, and likewise, if they have a bad day, they can cause me a problem."
But Jah and others argue that the five-year rule doesn't go far enough. For one thing, international regulators need to make sure there are consequences for those who don't follow the rules. Dickinson noted that there are already satellites that have been floating in space for more than 25 years after being decommissioned – exceeding the current guidelines.
Space junk should be dealt with as quickly as possible, and there should be some form of accountability if it doesn't happen, Dickinson said.
"If an operator says I'm going to do 'X,' and it doesn't happen, there's no real penalties at the moment," he explained. "If someone launches 1,000 spacecraft into LEO and they decommission 90% successfully but leave 10% behind, there's no real rules about what the penalty is."
Furthermore, Dickinson added, regulators need to tackle the tough question of what to do if a satellite company goes bankrupt.
"If you don't decommission... but you're adding more up there the whole time, all of these constellations, the amount of space fills up," he said. "And more, those end-of-life satellites are left as bits of junk. And because they're passive, they can't avoid a collision."
Meanwhile, satellite operators that have to get rid of their space junk often dispose of it through 'uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry' – in other words, letting it burn up in the sky as it falls back to Earth. Yet as the recent crash of China's Long March 5B rocket demonstrated, the larger a spacecraft is, the less likely it is to completely burn up. The spacecraft that do burn up in the atmosphere are leaving behind chemicals that could damage the Earth's ozone layer, researchers say.
That's why the US government – via the FCC as well as the White House – has been exploring the potential for supporting in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities. ISAM capabilities could include replacing a broken part on a satellite, building a new part, or refueling a spacecraft – all in space.
Just as environmentally conscious people try to minimize their use of single-use plastics, governments should prohibit or try to minimize the use of single-use satellites, Jah argues.
Under Article XI of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the government is responsible for authorizing and overseeing any objects that go into space, Jah notes. So theoretically, the US could require space operators to make their satellites reusable or recyclable before they get a license to go into orbit.
That kind of political mandate could be necessary, given that the economic incentive to create a sustainable space industry just isn't there yet.
"Everyone agrees this is a new page of our industry that is about to be written," Maurizio Vanotti, VP of new markets for the satellite connectivity company OneWeb, said during a recent webinar on space sustainability. That said, he continued, "There are two aspects related to the sustainability of this business – one is the business model, and the other is the technological approach. The two things have to go hand in hand."
OneWeb, which has a constellation of more than 600 satellites in orbit, has taken a "responsible approach" since its inception, Vanotti continued, building satellites equipped with docking features, so they can attach to another spacecraft in the event of some kind of failure.
But right now, it doesn't really make business sense for a satellite operator to launch dedicated satellite-recovery missions. Jah agreed that there should effectively be recycling stations in orbit.
There are a number of roadblocks standing in the way of a robust circular space economy, Jah acknowledges.
"None of this stuff can happen tomorrow," he said. "But the thing is, it's something that could become manifest, but it definitely won't unless we start working on it right now."
Read more on how the new space race will drive innovation: