Space Congestion: A Growing Danger

Stewart Bain

by Stewart Bain

CEO NorthStar Earth & Space

Curiosity and interest in space is in the very nature of human existence. Galileo, Einstein, scientists of today, a child looking up at the stars, ours is to wonder, and endeavor to know the great unknown. As we develop technologies to bring us closer to the stars, the path leads through our own planet’s orbital environment.

With the global space economy forecast as a $1.5 trillion industry by 2040, the near-space environment of Earth is populated by an ever-increasing amount of space debris. Global communications, weather, navigation, military and other critical services are embedded in networks of satellites at risk from collisions which could disrupt and imperil life on Earth.

Space is a shared resource. The growing volume of space debris objects in orbit means collisions will become more frequent. This increases the probability of a cascade scenario, whereby a collision creates debris which triggers further collisions, a catastrophic chain reaction known as the Kessler Syndrome, named after the NASA scientist who conceived of it in 1978.

In March 2019, 41 years later, a satellite was purposefully destroyed during a test mission. In response, Jim Bridenstine, head of NASA, issued a statement that the debris created by the satellite posed a threat to the International Space Station. According to Mr. Bridenstine, activities which increase the amount of orbital space debris are not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.

By European Space Agency estimates, as of January 2019, there are 129 million space debris objects in Earth’s orbit. This includes 128 million objects smaller than 1 cm, 900,000 objects between 1 and 10 cm, and 34,000 objects larger than 10 cm. Space is becoming dangerously congested. Thousands of new satellites will be launched over the next 10 years and the risk of collisions will increase exponentially, for both commercial and government operators.

The Kessler Syndrome remains a predictive theory but it would be foolhardy to ignore it. The time for planning is now and it is incumbent upon all operators in space to share knowledge and collaborate to address this pressing issue. An answer is to pursue global partnerships in the field of Space Situational Awareness (SSA), the science of tracking, understanding and predicting the physical location of natural and man-made objects in orbit around the Earth, with the objective of avoiding collisions.

To secure the future, humanity on Earth, and in Space, must have the means to be true caretakers of these environments. As CEO of NorthStar Earth & Space, I believe we all must work together to ensure that Earth’s orbit, the pathway to the stars, is maintained as safe and secure for all space operators.

This to ensure peace and order on the ground, and provide future generations with the same chance as our ancestors, to look to the stars and wonder, and be part of the everlasting human endeavor to know the great unknown.