There is a lot of junk orbiting the Earth and the problem will worsen unless there are changes in how spacecraft operators operate. But it is not all doom and gloom. The first steps toward a comprehensive solution are already well underway including a European code of conduct for space debris mitigation.
According to Dr Ruediger Jehn, a space debris specialist working at ESA's Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, there are several relatively simple measures that will help reduce the amount of debris in space. Some are already being implemented by spacecraft operators at little or no cost.
"These steps," he explains, "are based on common sense and include measures that should be acceptable to any spacecraft operator."
The basic concept is simple: do not make the existing problem worse; reduce or prevent the creation of any new debris; and, in particular, strive to protect the commercially valuable low Earth and geostationary orbits.
The amount of debris created during normal operations can be reduced by not discarding, ejecting or detaching anything that does not have to be discarded, ejected or detached. This includes payload covers, Yo-Yo despinners and instrument covers such as those used to protect the highly sensitive optical windows of sensors during launch. Lastly, minimise break-ups, a major source of small but deadly debris.
But while technology will likely provide many solutions and many nations are now serious about following a code of behaviour, Dr Jehn and others in ESA's space debris community argue that, ultimately, what is needed is a CoC negotiated at the UN level to push everyone to adhere to standards.
In the meantime, how can the average person become involved?
"Call your space agency," says Dr Jehn, "tell them: 'My kids want to travel in space in 30 years and I don't want you guys spoiling it'. Pressure from the public could help. Once space is polluted it's too late and I wouldn't dare go up there."
Two large fragments of a Delta second stage which re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on 22 January 1997 were recovered in Georgetown, Texas. The large object seen here is the main propellant tank made of stainless steel with a mass of more than 250 kg which landed only 45 metres from a farmer’s home.
Link: ESA - ESOC and thanks (again) to Martin G at Ohpurleese for the steer....