In 2020, scientists from the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus will ship a shoe-box-sized satellite into Earth’s orbit to monitor enormous gaseous planets whose evaporating atmospheres trail along like comet tails. Once it’s deployed by NASA, let’s hope nothing smashes into it — or that it doesn’t smash into something else.
Space — or at least the narrow band of it that Earthlings depend on to boost communications, navigation, weather forecasting, national security and scientific discovery — is getting crowded. According to a Wall Street Journal report from earlier this year, there’s a veritable traffic jam up there, and advances in miniaturization like the devices used in CU’s planned study are quickly adding to the congestion.
Already, the Air Force tracks 23,000 objects spinning round the globe at unbelievable speeds — some as small as a baseball, others as large as the International Space Station. A lot of those objects are old rocket parts and decommissioned spacecraft. There’s also just a lot of wreckage and debris, in part from past collisions. But hundreds of the objects are satellites we depend on. The Satellite Industry Association pegs annual revenue from their services at $127 billion.
New, relatively inexpensive and easy-to-deploy satellites little larger than a Rubik’s Cube — a popular version is called the CubeSat — are quickly adding to the traffic. The cubes, which are stackable like Legos, are affordable enough that even some elementary schools have used them for experiments. When the Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment — or CUTE — goes live, another 20,000 or so tiny satellites will be up there competing for attention, as well as for room to move.
The tiny satellites can hitchhike along on NASA and commercial payloads and be ejected easily into space. Once deployed, many of the orbiters aren’t designed for long-term use. A lot of them fail to work right out of the gate. Yet, because they lack propulsion, there’s no way to move them out of dangerous paths, or into the atmosphere to burn up safely.
Little wonder experts say they represent a significant danger, no matter how cute they are. Consider that at orbital speeds of 17,000 miles per hour or more, the impact of even a tiny aluminum pellet can be catastrophic. Already, large commercial satellites are getting damaged and ruined.
Yet advances in technology are quickly outstripping the global practices for keeping the peace that have evolved over the last 30 years.
Experts say that the Federal Aviation Administration should step in, but such a move would require congressional approval and about $100 million. A United Nations committee has been debating new guidelines for how to deal with space junk since 2003, but without agreement on what to do.
A NASA scientist told The Wall Street Journal, “We do realize we are behind the curve.”