Environmental Challenges in Space

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Few people saw the consequences of lack of environmental efforts in the early start of the space era, but rubbish in space has now become a serious problem.  Through more than fifty years of launching an increasing number of objects the most used orbital plane, Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, has so much space rubbish that collisions between small dead debris and satellites occur on a frequent basis, thus, it can no longer be referred to as accidents. Collisions between satellites and debris or collisions between satellites have happened in the past and as a consequence, dead satellites and a large number of new pieces are stuck in space. Some initiatives to stop the refuse-dumping have been taken, but despite these efforts, the number of objects in space has increased, mostly from collisions between objects in space. Due to plans for large networks of a large number of small satellites in the most used orbital planes, the problem will increase in the years to come.

Today the number of objects is enormous. There are 29 thousand objects larger than ten centimetres and totally more than 166 million are found in the near space. However, not all of these are human made, some are naturally cosmic objects, but the main problem is the man-made Objects.

Even very small objects can destroy an operational satellite, unfortunately, but they will not cause a catastrophe, however, a collision between two satellites will produce a large amount of new small objects and this may cause a catastrophe.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has taken the increasing problem of these collisions and the consequences seriously. Some international regulations have already been taken into effect, like regulations about deorbiting of satellites before they run out of fuel, or geostationary satellites to be sent to a graveyard orbit outside the geostationary belt. However, the number of rubbish in space continues to increase and more concrete actions must be taken.

At the 7th European Conference on Space Debris late in April this year, a depressing picture of the situation was discussed, and  the panel seemed unanimous in their conclusion – plans for active cleaning of space must be laid.

We require a coordinated global solution to what is, after all, a global problem that affects critical satellites delivering services to all of us,” said Brigitte Zypries, German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, at a press briefing on the conferences closing day in Darmstadt, Germany.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner appealed to space stakeholders to keep Earths orbital environment as clean as possible. Developing and implementing the ESA Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme as decided during ESA’s last ministerial council in 2016 will be a key factor.

In order to enable innovative services for citizens and future developments in space, we must cooperate now to guarantee economically vital spaceflight. We must sustain the dream of future exploration, he said.


ESA Space Debris Workshop in 2014 addressed the same problems, and several ideas to catch and deorbit satellites and pieces from satellites or launchers were discussed and agreed on, however, none of these ideas has been realised so far, and the problem has only worsened in the three years since that.

During the next three years, the community must develop and launch reliable systems to start cleaning the space. If that fails, the problem may also possibly hinder the launch of new satellites.