The U.S. is getting serious about space junk

10/03/2022 | Tom Metcalfe - NBC News | External Article

TThe FCC will force satellites to deorbit after five years, and a growing private industry around space junk is picking up steam.

Schildknecht’s team has been tracking the most dangerous pieces of space debris for several years and now uses lasers to track their trajectories. As well as predicting dangerous collisions, astronomers use their database to schedule observations when their view won’t be disrupted by stray space junk. 


The U.S. government is taking legal steps to limit the amount of space junk — the cloud of dangerous debris still orbiting the Earth — after more than six decades of space races, rocket launches, planetary missions and booming satellite activity. 

The key measure is the imposition last week by the Federal Communications Commission of a five-year lifetime for new satellites after they complete their mission, by which time they’ll have to deorbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Before now, a 25-year lifetime has been in place as a guideline, but it’s never been legally enforced.

The new rule applies only to satellites launched by U.S. operators, and it won’t solve the space junk problem on its own. But experts agree it’s a good start and in line with international efforts.

“It’s about establishing rules for space and having a legal framework that people have to adhere to,” said space debris expert Carolin Frueh, an associate professor of aeronautic and astronautic engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “That’s a big step.”

Earth’s orbital space is vast, and there are only about 5,000 active satellites. But it’s estimated that there might be millions of pieces of space junk circling our planet — from entire stages of rockets, which can weigh several tons, to inactive satellites, lost bits of space equipment, stray nuts and bolts, and the broken fragments of orbital collisions.

Most of those pieces are tiny — smaller than a nickel. But they’re orbiting at more than 15,000 mph, and experts estimate there are about 30,000 pieces of space junk large enough and fast enough to be a serious problem — and potentially a disaster.

There have already been some close calls. In June the International Space Station changed its orbit to avoid debris from a Soviet-era satellite, which had been blown up in a Russian test of a new anti-satellite missile. So far the ISS has had to avoid orbiting space debris more than 30 times during its 23-year mission. It’s also been damaged by space junk, and on another occasion the ISS crew were ready to leave in case of a collision.

An artist's depiction of orbiting debris and satellites around Earth.
An artist's depiction of orbiting debris and satellites around Earth.NASA

And the problem will get worse. One report estimated that about 10,000 more dangerous pieces of space junk will be in orbit by the end of this century.

“Space debris is not yet at the stage where we cannot do any more space missions,” said Thomas Schildknecht, a professor of astronomy at the University of Bern in Switzerland and the director of the Zimmerwald Observatory. “But the risk is increasing, and if we don’t pay attention, then in 10 years from now we’ll be at the level where we can’t do anything.”