Research projects

NASA funds three research projects to clean up trash in Earth orbit

Cleanliness is next to godliness – and it is also necessary in space. NASA is therefore providing funds for researchers to study the best way to do this.

Image credits Zanpei/Flickr.

Orbital debris is a growing concern for space agencies around the world. This space junk represents the accumulation of man-made objects that orbit the Earth without serving a purpose. It includes debris, fragments, even abandoned rocket stages or no longer functioning spacecraft. All of this has been accumulating ever since humanity reached Earth orbit.

As part of NASA’s efforts to clear Earth’s orbit and ensure humanity can still reach space, the agency will fund research proposals from three university teams over the next year to address this topic. These projects will analyze the social, economic and political issues necessary to ensure that we keep our orbit clean enough to sustain space travel.

Clean our environment

“Orbital debris is one of the great challenges of our time,” said Bhavya Lal, associate administrator for the Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy (OTPS) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Maintaining our ability to use space is critical to our economy, our national security, and our country’s science and technology enterprise.”

“These awards will fund research to help us understand the dynamics of the orbital environment and show how we can develop policies to limit the creation of debris and mitigate the impact of existing debris.”

An accumulation of space debris around our planet could reasonably prevent us from leaving the planet. Such a hypothetical scenario, in which the density of debris around a planet is so great that any attempt to clear it will instead lead to the generation of even more debris is known as “Kessler syndrome“. Reaching such a state is pretty much game over for any civilization’s ability to leave its planet or afford to do so without outside help.

Three proposals were selected by NASA following their evaluation process. These were titled “Adaptive Space Governance and Decision-Support using Source-Sink Evolutionary Environmental Models”, “An Integrated Assessment Model for Satellite Constellations and Orbital Debris”, and “Communication and Space Debris: Connecting with Public Knowledges and Identities”.

Details and results of these research projects will be available on the agency’s website at a later date.

For now, this initiative illustrates NASA’s concern to prevent our planet from developing Kessler syndrome. It also shows how far humanity’s fingerprint extends to the world around us. Technology and machinery only began to be used in any significant way around 200 years ago, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, we’ve littered Earth’s orbit and even left trash on Mars.

NASA previously estimated that there are hundreds of millions of pieces of debris currently circulating around Earth’s orbit. The fastest flight of them can reach speeds in excess of 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 mph), giving them enough energy to severely damage spacecraft in the event of a potential impact.

This is the latest initiative in a long series of efforts to control and contain space debris. Earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced a partnership with Astroscale and OneWeb to develop spacecraft capable of capturing non-functioning satellites from low Earth orbit. The International Space Station (ISS) should receive an active protection system intended to protect it from impacts with space waste.

For the moment, the issue of space waste is worrying, but not yet serious. If we don’t take corrective action, however, we could see Earth finally get its own rings – of trash – before we’re locked in here forever.