Space debris floating around earth, not to scale but accurate in density

Space debris problem exacerbated by discarded batteries left to explode in orbit

Discarded fuel and batteries that explode while orbiting the Earth are the biggest contributor to the growing space debris problem, the European Space Agency (ESA) has warned.

In its annual report on the issue, ESA said the threat to functioning satellites is growing year-by-year as the number of particles orbiting the Earth grows exponentially.

Since the beginning of the space age in 1957, tonnes of rockets, spacecraft and instruments have been launched to space.

Initially, there was no plan for what to do with them at the end of their lives. Since then, numbers have continued to increase and explosions and collisions in space have created hundreds of thousands of shards of dangerous debris.

“The biggest contributor to the current space debris problem is explosions in orbit, caused by left-over energy – fuel and batteries – onboard spacecraft and rockets. Despite measures being in place for years to prevent this, we see no decline in the number of such events. Trends towards end-of-mission disposal are improving, but at a slow pace,” explained Holger Krag, head of the ESA’s space safety programme.

International guidelines have been introduced to make space more sustainable including designing rockets and spacecraft to minimise the amount of ‘shedding’ – material becoming detached during launch and operation, due to the harsh conditions of space.

They also recommend ‘passivating’ spacecraft at the end of their lives to prevent explosions and moving defunct missions out of the way of working satellites by either de-orbiting them or moving them to a ‘graveyard orbit’.

Nevertheless, ESA reports a worrying trend of an increasing number of debris objects. As things stand, collisions between debris and working satellites is predicted to overtake explosions as the dominant source of debris. On average over the last two decades, 12 accidental ‘fragmentations’ have occurred in space every year and this trend is increasing.

Fragmentation events describe moments in which debris is created due to collisions, explosions, electrical problems and even just the detachment of objects due to the harsh conditions in space.

Still, according to ESA figures, only around 15-30 per cent of payloads launched into space attempt to comply with measures designed to help alleviate the space debris problem.

The figure for rockets is more promising, with a vague 40 to 80 per cent of those in a non-compliant low-Earth orbit this decade attempting to comply with debris mitigation measures. Of these, 30-70 per cent did so successfully.

Economists recently suggested that the most effective way to solve the issue of building space debris in orbit around Earth is to charge operators a fee for every satellite put into orbit.

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