Space companies unite in the fight against space debris

    07 Aug 2021

    The Earth’s orbit is similar to a highway, where more than 3,000 artificial satellites of the Earth rotate at incredible speeds, up to 28 000 km per hour. The number of the latter will increase tenfold by 2030. Already, analysts say the figure is over 100 000.

    New artificial satellites will benefit humanity. An internet connection can be 99% cheaper, farmers will increase their yields with spectral images of land from space, and location data and weather forecasts will be even more accurate.

    At the same time, these devices will make the near-Earth space even more loaded. This will lead to higher risks of collisions between spacecraft and debris.

    The Space Sustainability Rating, SSR will help avoid all this: the rating prescribes the rules of use and disposal of spacecraft after the expiration date.

    Next year, manufacturers of devices operating in near-Earth space will be able to apply for SSR. Companies will thus confirm the security of their developments for space infrastructure,

    International entrepreneur in the fields of space and information technology, founder and managing partner of Noosphere Ventures Max Polyakov explains in his article why the number of satellites will increase tenfold over the next decade, causing debris in orbit, and why an SSR rating is needed.

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    Why the number of satellites is growing rapidly

    Last year, the company launched  1283 artificial satellites into orbit. This is 13.5 times more than in 2019. Before that, the record was set in 1967 – 143 satellites, respectively.

    Why is their number increasing rapidly? A modern rocket can launch dozens of devices at once. Previously, this was impossible.

    For example, in May 2021, SpaceX launched 172 Starlink devices in three launches.

    In addition, the size of the devices has decreased significantly compared to the giants of the twentieth century. The weight of Starlink, Internet transmitting devices, or EOSDA used for surveillance does not exceed 300 kg.

    Satellites launched 10-20 years ago, such as the Astra 1L (4505 kg), TerreStar-1 (6910 kg), or the first large Soviet “Space-122” (4730 kg) and American CRRES (4383 kg), were much larger in size and weight because the technology of the time did not allow to create something more compact.

    The number of launches also affects the cost of production and output services. Morgan Stanley, a world-renowned financial company, estimates that the launch price has dropped from $ 200 million to $ 60 million. In the future, it may be even lower, at only  $500 000. This will happen if the production of artificial satellites becomes massive.

    The latter will reduce the cost of satellite services. For example, in the future, the price of a megabyte of the Internet may cost about 1% of today’s figures.

    Despite the enormous benefits to humanity, satellites pose a threat in Earth’s orbit. After the decommissioning of devices, space debris is formed, which negatively affects the operation of infrastructure outside the Earth.

    How space debris arises

    Space debris is any object left by humans in outer space.

    These are non-functioning satellites that have completed their mission, the last stages of rockets, and even screwdrivers that fell out of astronauts’ hands while working on the International Space Station.

    In total, NASA estimates that there are 23,000 fragments outside the Earth with a circumference of more than 40 cm (as a souvenir soccer ball), 500,000 fragments – up to 0.4 inches (1 cm) or more. Another approximately 100 million fragments are 0.04 inches (1 mm).

    These fragments rotate at great speed, maintaining their inertia due to the lack of friction, and can not fall to Earth due to high speed.

    Why space debris is dangerous for infrastructure

    Fragments of satellites and other objects in orbit move up to 28,000 km per hour at high speeds. This is enough for a 1 mm fragment to damage an artificial satellite.

    In 2016, a tiny fragment of this size hit the Copernicus Sentinel-1A, an Earth observation satellite, damaging the latter.

    Large garbage is also dangerous. In 2009, Iridium 33 telephone connection satellite collided with a broken device, as a result of which it was utterly destroyed. After the accident, 2,300 large fragments appeared in Earth orbit, about 10% of the total amount of large debris.

    What is SSR

    The Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) is an initiative to create common rules for operators of satellites, rockets, and other devices. These rules will make the movement in outer space consistent, which will reduce the risk of collisions of both devices with each other and with debris.

    The SSR concept was developed by the World Economic Space Council of the World Economic Forum during the seminars.

    The latter held a call for applications in 2018, after which four organizations were selected to start developing SSR: the European Space Agency, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Texas.

    University of Austin and Bryce, Space and Technology formed a consortium with the World Economic Forum to identify the technical and programmatic aspects of SSR from 2019 to 2021.

    The rating describes the rules of operation for manufacturers of satellites, missiles, and other devices in detail.

    The rules of operation specified in the SSR are voluntary. Companies will apply on their own initiative to prove the safety of devices in Earth orbit.

    After submitting applications, the jury will evaluate the company on the following parameters:

    ·  plans to withdraw systems from orbit after completion of missions;

    ·  choice of orbit height;

    ·  the ability to detect and identify systems from Earth;

    ·  collision prevention measures;

    ·  the size and number of objects left in space by the launch vehicle;

    ·  data exchange.

    Space operators, launch service providers, and satellite manufacturers will voluntarily join the new SSR system to receive one of four levels of certification. Companies will be able to advertise them widely to confirm the safety of the devices.

    In addition, positive assessments of companies can help reduce insurance costs and even improve investors’ conditions to finance space projects.

    There is currently no information on whether there will be any fines for companies that do not participate in the SSR rating.

    What will change in the future

    SSR will affect the work of operators. They will act according to the rules specified in the rating. This will reduce the risk of devices colliding with each other. These rules will also reduce the gap between knowledge and practical skills in the space operator community.

    For example, SSR will help avoid situations in which operators of satellites and other devices find themselves. In March, the media reported that Starlink and OneWeb devices nearly collided.

    Globally, this rating will reduce the risks of Kessler syndrome, several device collisions with each other and with debris, as a result of which artificial satellites will stop working, millions of new trash items will appear, and the Earth’s space will become unsuitable for new devices and rockets.

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