Space Debris do not distinguish between assets of different states and different types of assets. Irrespective of who is responsible for creating space debris, space being a global common, it will affect every other state’s assets, opine experts. Experts also feel that the bigger problem with cleaning space debris comes from the fact that technologies to clean up space debris are yet to be proven, and these technologies are available only to a handful of countries including the US, Russia and European Union (EU).
Considering the threat of Space Debris, this is also going to be the agenda of the first India-Japan Space Dialogue in March. There are more than 21000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cms; between 1 cm and 10 cm approx. 500,000 pieces; and the number of pieces smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.
Sharing her views with Financial Express Online, Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Head, Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), says “Space Debris offers an opportunity for states and non-state actors such as commercial players to collaborate and find possible ways to clean up outer space. This is important in the context of the crowded and congested outer space with the growth of both satellites as well as space debris. But if we want to continue to utilize outer space and keep it sustainable for the future generations, states have to come together and agree to avoid activities that might lead to creation of more space debris.”
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One of the most effective means to understand the space environment one operates in is to have an effective space situational awareness (SSA) system. “An effective SSA would help in tracking of space objects, debris, space weather, including predicting collisions in orbit, detecting launches of new space objects, and predicting re-entry of space objects into the atmosphere, and detecting threats and attacks on spacecraft,” she points out.
Countries like the US have the largest SSA network with a number of radars and sensors, followed by Russia and EU. However, the US’ SSA network does not have a good coverage of the southern hemisphere. This gap can be addressed by Russia as well as the emerging capabilities and networks in countries such as China, Japan and India.
According to Rajagopalan, the bigger problem with cleaning space debris comes from the fact that technologies to clean up space debris are yet to be proven, and these technologies are available only to a handful of countries. “The risky aspects of these technologies come from the fact if a particular technology can be used to remove a piece of debris, it can also be used for other nefarious purposes. In addition, the legal and regulatory aspects of space debris are yet to be debated.”
What Technologies are available?
A number of commercial companies and government agencies are developing technologies for taking out the space trash, including in Japan and Europe. “There are a number of different methods being explored, primarily for attacking the problem of expected debris growth in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) — where the projected ten-fold increase in operational spacecraft over the next decade will inevitably mean an increase in space debris. Unfortunately, even very small pieces of space junk can disable or destroy a working spacecraft because of the high speeds of crashes on orbit, says Theresa Hitchens, Senior Research Associate, Center for International and Security at Maryland (CISSM).
“Technologies being explored include tethers that would attach to a satellite and increase its drag, thus hastening its descent through the atmosphere where hopefully the debris will burn up. Japan’s KITE experiment, which unfortunately failed in 2017, was based around tether technology. Harpoons, nets and drag sails are other types of technology — all three are being tested under the EU’s Remove Debris project, which successfully underwent a first test after launch from the International Space Station in June 2018. Contractors Surrey Space Center and Airbus intend to continue testing through 2019.”
Regarding the concern within the international space community about the potential for governments to develop debris removal technology as a cover for space weapons development, Hitchens says that it is somewhat justifiable, as all the technologies workable for debris removal could also be adjusted to interfere with working satellites — just as nuclear energy technology can be diverted into a nuclear weapons program.
However, at the moment, most of the innovation is coming from commercial space firms looking for commercial customers among fellow commercial satellite operators concerned about debris risks to their investments — albeit usually with government incentives including funding.
While thought will be required to deal with these concerns, governments could relatively easily come up with transparency initiatives to mitigate suspicions about deployed debris removal spacecraft, she suggests.
Hitchens, who was formerly a director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, points out that a further hurdle for companies hoping to sell such technology is the legal regime, such as it is, surrounding debris. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 makes it clear that space junk, like working satellites, belongs to the country of origin — meaning that permission of the owner state would be required before it is removed.
Additionally, there is liability concerns — as a debris removal attempt gone wrong could wind up with a large piece of debris or a dead satellite being flung into the path of an active satellite by mistake, she says.
Despite these concerns and challenges, it is clear that within the decade debris removal will become a requirement if space is to be kept usable in the longer term. Even without the projected increases in space traffic, scientists have been predicting that debris creation on orbit will seriously begin to negatively impact space operators within the next 50 years.
India and Japan Space Cooperation
According to Prof. Kazuto Suzuki, Vice Dean and Professor of International Politics at Public Policy School of Hokkaido University, Japan, “There are several aspects with regard to space debris in Japan. First, it is a perfect opportunity to strengthen US-Japan alliance and contribute to the stability of international public arena. Japan has self-imposed restriction for the use of space for military purposes based on its Pacifist Constitution. Monitoring space debris (contributing to Space Situational Awareness activities) is the first major case that Japanese Ministry of Defence (MoD) involves in military space activities.”
Geo-strategically, Japan is located between Hawaii and Diego Garcia where US has SSA installations, so it covers the blind spot for US SSA capabilities.
“Astroscale, Singapore-based Company run by Japanese business person, Mr. Nobu Okada, is a hope for industrialization of space. This start-up company has been doing fine so far. It has contracted with mega-constellation operators for removing end-of-life satellites which is equivalent to space debris,” Prof Kazuto Suzuki says.
Japanese government is trying to promote Astroscale as the new commercial services not only for commercial mega-constellations but also for national governments and agencies. Third, Japanese space agency, JAXA, and its industry is increasingly concerning the risk of hitting debris. Japan Space Foundation, semi-independent think-tank on space, has been hosting number of space debris-related projects and it has increased the awareness of space debris problem in Japan. The risk of hitting debris may increase in more congested orbital environment, and therefore, Japanese government and JAXA are trying to set up international rules for mitigating and removing debris.
About India’s role in removal of the Space Debris, the Prof states that “In these contexts, the cooperation with India is important. India, as one of the most active spacefaring nations, is an important ally with regard to the emergence of China as one of the superpowers in space.”
Ädding, “Chinese activities, notably the ASAT test in 2007, threaten the safety of orbital environment, and both Japan and India share the same concern. Also, India is one of the most advanced space technology states which have numerous joint projects with Japan. Team Indus worked with Japanese iSpace in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. When it comes to the debris removal technologies, Japan and India can work towards the same goal.”