Technology We Need Satellites---A Speeding Mass of Space Junk Puts Them at Risk

19:48  13 september  2017
19:48  13 september  2017 Source:   The Wall Street Journal

The Sun Just Released the Most Powerful Solar Flare in More Than a Decade

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Earlier this year, a single rocket launched from India flung 104 small satellites into space . A second Indian effort in June put another 30 into orbit, each roughly the size of a coffee can. In July, a Russian rocket scattered 72 more satellites around Earth, like pebbles strewn from a speeding car.

The mass of " space junk " orbiting the Earth poses a serious threat to future exploration, a British scientist said on Friday at Space debris puts these satellites at risk of being destroyed or damaged and "may affect the dreams and ambitions of future generations to work and live in space ", he said.

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Earlier this year, a single rocket launched from India flung 104 small satellites into space. A second Indian effort in June put another 30 into orbit, each roughly the size of a coffee can. In July, a Russian rocket scattered 72 more satellites around Earth, like pebbles strewn from a speeding car.

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We Need Satellites — A Speeding Mass of Space Junk Puts Them at Risk . Years of debris plus a boom in small satellites imperils the Hubble Space Telescope as well as equipment used for phones, data, national security and weather forecasting.

They are fragments of a Navy satellite that was shattered during a test in a Tennessee bunker by a plum-sized aluminum ball traveling at a speed of about four miles Today radars that were designed to scan the horizon for incoming Russian missiles track a silent armada of space junk instead.

These swarms of small satellites—hard to track and hard to dodge—increase the risk of collision for the world’s vital communication, navigation and defense satellites.

Within a few years there might be another 20,000 or so small craft launched into a narrow band of space around Earth, more than 10 times the number of all working satellites in orbit today. The growth is spurred by advances in miniaturization, low-cost electronics and rocketry. Companies, space agencies, universities and even elementary-school students are jockeying for position.

The traffic jam heightens the hazards of junk encircling Earth. The U.S. Air Force tracks 23,000 objects in orbit the size of a baseball or larger—most of it derelict rocket parts, decommissioned spacecraft or wreckage. Aerospace experts said there may be millions more hazardous splinters too small to track.

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You have any idea how much tether you'd need to lug along? or what the differential speeds between pieces of junk is - especially if they don't orbit in the same plane? Why not put something up that would deflect the space junk back.

“ We need to put together a master plan, to change our operations to achieve a sustainable environment. As yet, no one knows the best way to capture errant satellites and stages and put them out of harm’s way. How to clean up space junk .

At risk are the international space station, the Hubble Space Telescope and hundreds of satellites used for communications, national security, weather forecasting and navigation. The Satellite Industry Association estimates that about $127 billion in annual revenue from satellite services is vulnerable.

Traveling at orbital speeds up to 17,000 miles an hour, even an aluminum pellet 1-centimeter wide packs the kinetic equivalent of a 400-pound safe moving at 60 miles an hour.

Last year, a scrap barely bigger than a grain of salt blew a hole in the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1-B satellite, knocking off five pieces that narrowly missed a nearby satellite. In June, something jolted the AMC9 telecommunications satellite, owned by Luxembourg-based SES, disrupting data and broadcast services over the U.S. and Mexico.

“This is the first time this has happened to us,” said Markus Payer, vice president for corporate communications at SES, which operates 65 satellites. Company engineers re-established control of the crippled craft and hope to park it in a “graveyard” orbit where it won’t threaten other spacecraft. The incident is costing SES about $23 million in lost revenues this year and another $44 million in the value of the spacecraft itself.

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Risk is the key term whenever you talk about dealing with tumbling space junk , he said, since every That's roughly the same mass as each of the 17 SL-16 rocket bodies currently floating within a ten-mile altitude window. Swiss craft janitor satellites to grab space junk . February 15, 2012.

When the two satellites collided, they were each traveling at a speed of around 17,000mph relative to the Earth In order to calculate the danger a given satellite faces, one needs to know how much junk could The other complication arises from the manner in which we , humanity, put stuff into space .

Unchecked, the growing debris in orbit “might make some regions of space unusable in the future, and that would impact everybody—everybody who uses a mobile phone, who gets television, who relies on weather forecasts,” said Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office.

Satellite operations generally are governed by a patchwork of voluntary guidelines, treaties, domestic policies and laws designed for an earlier era of spaceflight. In the U.S., responsibility is spread over several federal agencies.

Among other issues, European space officials and aerospace executives worry that customary practices guiding the distance between satellites or how quickly they should be removed from orbit when missions are done aren’t adequate and are often ignored.

“International treaties on space were developed 30 years ago, and they weren’t considering the types of constellations and uses of space we are seeing in the near future,” said Greg Wyler, CEO of OneWeb, which starting in April plans to launch a $2 billion constellation of 882 small satellites for broadband internet services. “There needs to be an update of those rules.”

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With 3000 satellites and a growing arsenal of space junk , Earths orbit is a crowded area. It was the first time two satellites were known to have collided, which is remarkable considering there are about 3000 of them circling the Earth.

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Access to space has never been easier, due to the innovations of small satellites that range from the size of a washing machine to as small as a poker chip, compared with more traditional satellites that are often taller than a double-decker bus and weigh several tons.

The most popular type is called a CubeSat, which is based on a student-created standardized design and typically costs a fraction of larger systems—as little as $40,000 each compared with an average of $97 million or so for larger, custom-built satellites. At their simplest, CubeSats are 4-inch cubes that can be stacked like Legos into various configurations.

“CubeSats are so appealing because they are a kit, essentially,” said aerospace industry analyst Carissa Bryce Christensen, CEO of the consulting firm Bryce Space & Technology in Alexandria, Va. “You are not having to design everything yourself.”

Each tiny spacecraft is built to perform a single dedicated task, such as gathering weather data, tracking aircraft, monitoring factory activity or conducting science experiments that require low gravity. Experimental networks of these small satellites can also coordinate their actions, respond to events and collect data autonomously across a broad area.

They usually hitchhike into low orbit—200 to 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface—on rockets launched by space agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and private companies, such as SpaceX, that have spare room. They are often stacked on racks to be deployed from the international space station, like shells ejected from a pump-action shotgun. NanoRacks LLC, a leading launcher of CubeSats, based in Webster, Texas, has deployed 182 CubeSats from the space station.

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The growing collection of untracked space debris is putting 0 billion worth of satellites and space infrastructure at risk , researchers warn. Unused fuel in abandoned satellites can cause them to blow up and turn one piece of space junk into thousands of smaller pieces.

Of the thousands of pieces of space junk in orbit, NASA is monitoring at least 16,000 of these This is because if they collide with spacecraft or satellites at high speed , massive damage can occur. “It has become essential to be aware of the existence of this debris and the risks that are run by its

Other relatively compact satellites, each weighing a few hundred pounds, are also proliferating. In the next five years 11 aerospace companies plan orbital networks encompassing 18,000 small communications satellites, according to federal filings, representing about $175 billion worth of satellite manufacturing and launch services. More launches are expected from universities and researchers.

“We never expected the market to grow so quickly,” said NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. His company is now exploring ways to use 3-D printing technology and robotics to manufacture CubeSats in orbit. So is the European Space Agency.

At least 35 companies are working on new launch systems to speed CubeSats into space, according to the Paris-based marketing research company Euroconsult Group.

Some aerospace experts are concerned that, despite their advantages, CubeSats may be little more than rocks in space. They too often malfunction, are too small to track easily and usually have no propulsion system to allow them to steer clear of other spacecraft, critics said.

Generally, a CubeSat maintains the speed and orbit of the rocket that released it. At lower altitudes, small amounts of wind and resistance can push the devices off course. (At very high altitudes, well beyond the reach of the atmosphere, a satellite might stay on the same course for thousands of years.)

The lack of maneuverability makes CubeSats a “huge problem,” said aerospace engineering professor John Crassidis at the University of Buffalo Nanosatellite Laboratory.

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Not only is it wasteful, but space junk can be dangerous as well - to satellites , to space stations, and when some of it plummets back to Earth, to human life on the ground. Why they ’re rescuing bats in Houston. Hurricane Harvey has put bats at risk ; here’s why saving them matters.

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Out of more than 244 CubeSats and other small satellites launched from 2000 through 2015, only one in four completed its mission, according to a recent survey by Michael Swartwout of Saint Louis University. Nearly a third of them were dead on arrival in orbit.

This summer, nine CubeSats belonging to commercial and university teams malfunctioned in orbit and now don’t respond to commands.

Many proponents of CubeSats said their tiny spacecraft orbit at such low altitudes that they clean up after themselves by harmlessly burning up in the atmosphere within a few months or years. As a satellite slows, it drops lower and lower, encountering stronger headwinds that create greater friction and heat, until it finally catches fire or vaporizes.

The largest commercial network of small satellites currently belongs to Planet, an imaging company based in San Francisco, which operates a fleet of 185 CubeSats and five other satellites and plans to launch six more CubeSats in October. Planet said it relies on the natural tendency of a satellite to burn up in the atmosphere to dispose of spacecraft that have outlived their usefulness.

Among this summer’s missing CubeSats is one deployed by Planet in July. It never reached its intended orbit and so far can’t be located. The company said it was gathering information to find out what happened.

  We Need Satellites---A Speeding Mass of Space Junk Puts Them at Risk © David Ebener/DPA/ZUMA PRESS About a third of the satellites in low Earth orbit don’t drop out of space as expected when their mission is done, an international space debris working group reported earlier this year. One of every five CubeSats launched between 2003 and 2014 was in violation of international guidelines calling for satellites to de-orbit safely when their mission is over, according to a separate NASA study.

Military and commercial radar monitors often can’t tell where all these small satellites are at any given time. “The number of satellites ride-sharing on a single rocket overwhelms the current process,” said Daniel Ceperley, CEO of LeoLabs Inc., which is building a global network of six radars for commercial space tracking and collision warning. The Air Force “historically takes a month to sort out where all the CubeSats are.”

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Satellite analyst Hugh Lewis at the U.K.’s University of Southampton and his colleagues studied orbital data collected from 2005 through 2014 by the Center for Space Standards & Innovation, a subsidiary of Analytical Graphics Inc., which issues collision alerts to commercial satellite operators. Combing through data on thousands of orbiting objects, Dr. Lewis identified 163 CubeSats and then reconstructed their travels.

Taken together, the tiny craft passed within 3 miles of other objects more than 360,000 times, with a margin of error of plus or minus a mile or so, in orbits where impacts would deliver the energy roughly equivalent to an exploding hand grenade.

“Any failures will cause problems,” said Dr. Lewis. “They are left to drift in an orbit that is used very heavily.”

The traffic-management problems could be multiplied by the thousands of small satellites proposed by SpaceX and other companies in filings with the Federal Communications Commission. These satellites, while still on the drawing board, will likely be large enough to carry propulsion systems and fuel to help steer clear of trouble, aerospace analyst Brian Weeden at the Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C., said.

Their sheer numbers, though, raise the risks of accidental collisions and growing space debris, Dr. Weeden and several other experts said.

SpaceX, for instance, is seeking the FCC’s permission to orbit almost 12,000 small satellites arranged in two global networks in low Earth orbits to provide internet service. A spokesman for SpaceX declined to comment on how it would handle potential collisions or debris.

In a letter in April to the FCC Satellite Division, SpaceX counsel William Wiltshire told regulators, “In the unlikely event of a failed satellite, that satellite would merely become another piece of debris and be treated no differently for collision-avoidance screening and risk assessment than any other piece of trackable debris.”

As the number of satellites soars, federal and congressional space experts have urged that the Federal Aviation Administration take a larger role in managing commercial space traffic. Among other things, that would relieve the Defense Department of its current role in monitoring nonmilitary orbital operations and providing collision warnings.

Any change, though, would require congressional approval and $100 million or so in new funding for the aviation agency—neither of which seems likely soon.

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has debated new guidelines on orbital debris since 2004, but the member states haven’t come to an agreement.

In the meantime, NASA expects to launch a space debris sensor in November to gather more data. “We do realize we are behind the curve,” said Jer Chyi Liou, chief scientist at NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

In 2024, the European Space Agency hopes to test a satellite designed to grab and remove defunct spacecraft.

In late June, an Italian company called D-Orbit LLC, funded partly by a Kickstarter campaign, launched a small CubeSat equipped with a special motor to knock itself out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. If it works, they expect to sell the device to other satellite developers. Five other groups launched CubeSats in July to test other de-orbiting techniques for small satellites, experimenting with sails that catch the thin air of the upper atmosphere and drag down a spent satellite into a zone where it will disintegrate.

An aerospace company based in Singapore called Astroscale expects to begin testing a debris-removal satellite in 2019 that can dock with junk and push it out of orbit. “The goal is to de-orbit or re-orbit spacecraft that have lost the functionality to do it themselves,” said Astroscale engineer Kohei Fujimoto.

No company has more direct experience with the hazards of space junk than Iridium Communications Inc., which operates a network of 66 large communications satellites in an orbit about 480 miles above Earth to link up satellite phones and data systems. When launched in 1997, the network was the world’s biggest deployment of low-Earth-orbit satellites.

In 2009, an abandoned Russian military communications satellite slammed into an Iridium satellite, with a closing speed of about 26,000 miles an hour.

The satellites broke into 2,300 pieces of high-speed shrapnel large enough to track. Some burned up in the atmosphere, but most are expected to orbit Earth for decades to come. It was the first time an active satellite was destroyed by an accidental impact with another satellite.

All told, Iridium has lost nine satellites in orbit over the years. The company declined to say how. “One moment they were communicating and being controlled and the next moment they weren’t,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch. “They are now what are known as ‘rocks in space.’ ”

Iridium is replacing its entire global network with 72 more-advanced satellites. To avoid adding to space debris, it is de-orbiting each older satellite as it is replaced so that it burns up in the atmosphere.

“We are going to de-orbit all 66 satellites by late next year,” said Mr. Desch, adding that orbital operations are always precarious. “You are operating a bit on a high wire.”

NASA To Decommission GRACE Satellites .
In the 15 years since launch, the satellites have aided in making many scientific discoveries about Earth, especially understanding the movement and storage of water on the planet. The distance between the two satellites enabled scientists to monitor two areas and study the variations in gravitational field caused by mass changes on Earth.These small changes in mass were used to track the motion of water on Earth and study seasonal and climatic patterns.Until the launch of Grace, scientists couldn't study the movement of water based on changes in mass.

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