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The space industry is mobilizing to clear orbits

Is space facing a “tragedy of the commons,” the theory that overexploitation of a common resource leads to its destruction? Is there an urgent need to establish rules to protect the most frequently used orbits, which are threatened by the proliferation of satellites and space debris? About 80 players in the field – agencies, satellite manufacturers, operators, providers, from Europe and the United States – gathered in Paris from January 18 to 20, at a workshop on space sustainability organized by the National Center for Space Studies (CNES). – unanimously answered yes.

Corruption of private actors New space And the mega-constellations of constellations that provide high-speed Internet, the falling cost of access to space, all this has changed the situation. “In 2016, Juan Carlos Dolado, a space debris specialist and co-founder of Look Up Space in 2022, recalls: There were 1000 satellites in orbit. Between 2017 and 2019, we shipped another 1,000. In 2020 alone, we shipped another 1,000. And in 2022, we shipped 2,100…”

“We are observing the beginning of an exponential development”Confirms Vincent Ruch, CNES engineer and space surveillance specialist. There are currently 26,000 to 36,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters orbiting above us, operational or defunct satellites, rocket components, large pieces of debris… However, the more space is crowded, the greater the risk of accidents. Due to the threat of Kessler syndrome, this chain collision phenomenon has become popular in film gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013). We are already writing “Three to ten fragmentations every year, says Vincent Gray. Some hit fairly passive objects without much energy and create small fragments. But when a rocket’s upper stage explodes, it can create hundreds of new pieces of debris.”

“Cemetery” in orbit.

The issue of debris is closely related to the issue of end-of-life or already dead satellites, as space “debris” are no longer maneuverable in the event of a collision, and their tanks are the most visible. Or their batteries spontaneously explode. We can better understand the importance of their “passivation” – that is, emptying them of all energy – and their “orbiting”, which, according to current regulations, must take place within twenty-five years of completion. of their activities.

A few years ago, it was determined that if 90% of the destroyed satellites were destroyed, the amount of debris would not increase. “ButCharacterized by Vincent Gray, this was an optimistic scenario that did not account for random fragmentation or the presence of large constellations. » The reality is even less consistent with predictions that we are very far from a 90% ratio: the actual figure is more than 30%. Result: Even if we stop sending vehicles into orbit, the amount of debris will increase.

Source: Le Monde

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