Q + A-What is space debris and how dangerous is it?

Band Supantha Mukherjee

STOCKHOLM, November 16 (Reuters)Russia’s test on Monday to detonate one of its own satellites in space drew criticism for endangering the International Space Station crew and, experts said, created a field of debris that has increased the risks to space activities for years.


Space debris, or space debris, consists of discarded launchers or parts of a spacecraft that float in space hundreds of kilometers above Earth, risking collision with a satellite or station. spatial.

Debris can also be caused by an explosion in space or when countries conduct missile tests to destroy their own satellites with missiles. Besides Russia, China, the United States and India have shot down satellites, creating space debris.

As space debris revolves around Earth at tremendous speeds – about 15,700 miles per hour (25,265 km / h) in low Earth orbit – it could cause significant damage to a satellite or spacecraft while collision event.

“Every satellite that enters orbit has the potential to become space debris,” Professor Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, said in an interview.

With the launch of more satellites from companies like Elon Musk’s Starlink and OneWeb satellite constellation, near-Earth space is likely to see more space debris.


The US government is tracking about 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a soft bullet orbiting Earth.

There is half a million debris larger than 1 centimeter and 100 million debris about a millimeter or more.

Debris, especially near the International Space Station, orbits the earth 15 to 16 times a day, increasing the risk of collision.

The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that the total mass of all space objects in Earth orbit weighs over 9,600 tonnes.

In a few decades, if the accumulation of space debris continues, some regions of space could become unusable, Holger Krag, chief of ESA’s space security program office, said in an interview.


The Kosmos 1408 satellite which was destroyed on Monday was launched in 1982 and weighed over 2,000 kg (4,410 lbs), creating a significant amount of space debris.

The test generated more than 1,500 pieces of “traceable orbital debris” and would likely spawn hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, US Space Command said in a statement.

The space station crew were ordered to take refuge in the capsules of their docked spacecraft for two hours after the test in case they needed to leave due to a collision with debris.

“The event occurred at an altitude just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the altitude of the space station,” Krag said. “So the risk to the space station will be increased, maybe even doubled, from what it was before.”


While space debris is unlikely to affect space travel, it will cause significant problems for spaceflight around Earth.

The risk would be greatest for objects orbiting at an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), which is used for communications and Earth observation.

“We will still be able to travel to Mars because we will be passing through this problematic region very quickly,” Krag said.

“But if you want to operate and stay for years in this problematic region, that might not be possible in a few decades,” he said.


According to NASA, debris in orbits of less than 600 kilometers will fall back to Earth in a few years, but above 1,000 kilometers it will continue to revolve around Earth for a century or more.

“If we are to try to solve the problem of space debris, we have to start removing this type of object,” Lewis said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency have partnered with start-ups to help clear space debris.

While JAXA has launched a six-month demonstration project with Astroscale for the world’s first debris clearance mission, ESA is working with Swiss start-up ClearSpace to launch a mission in 2025.

Not only a danger, space debris increases the cost to satellite operators.

Operators of satellites in geostationary orbit have estimated that protection and mitigation measures account for around 5-10% of mission costs and that for lower earth orbits the cost is higher, according to an OECD study.

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(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee in Stockholm; Editing by Alex Richardson)

(([email protected]; +46 70 721 1004; Reuters messaging: [email protected]))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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