Image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
Anyone who is keeping up with the new space economy knows that our atmosphere is full of space debris. According to NASA, “more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors.” and they pose serious risks to spacecrafts and satellites orbiting Earth. Debris as small as four inches can cause massive collisions like the Chinese Yunhai 1-02, a Chinese military satellite that was hit in March 2021. Astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell used Space-track.org to discover the object. The collision created 37 other debris objects that are tracked and some that are untracked.
In fact, much of the data collected for space debris is only found after a collision has occurred. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) has taken a lead on conducting measurements of the orbital environment. Other organizations are also working on mapping the objects in our atmosphere. There is the Open Architecture Data Repository and the Amature Astronomy Community is doing it’s part to categorize everything from broken satellites to paint chips. It is estimated that there could be more than 100 trillion artificial objects smaller than 1 micron around the planet.
One of the only ways to deal with this problem is by adding debris avoidance maneuvers to the space station, spacecrafts, and satellites. These maneuvers are usually conducted one to several hours before the time of the possible conjunction. The International Space Station has conducted 29 debris avoidance maneuvers since 1999, including three in 2020.
Another solution would be to start tracking debris on a blockchain. A blockchain is a public ledger that holds immutable information that anyone can track. This would give organizations around the world better up-to-date information and alerts when two objects get too close to each other.