750,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth threaten future of spaceflight, warn experts 

There are 750,000 pieces of dangerous space debris now in orbit 
There are 750,000 pieces of dangerous space debris now in orbit  Credit: University of Southampton 

More than 750,000 pieces of dangerous debris are now orbiting Earth and threatening the future of spaceflight, the largest ever conference on space rubbish has heard.

The European Space Agency (ESA) appealed to satellite operators and space agencies to clear up their retired crafts, many of which could impact launches, and are in danger of hitting the International Space Station.

“Only about 60 per cent of the satellites that should be disposed of at the end of their missions under current guidelines are, in fact, properly managed,”  Dr Holger Krag, head of ESA’s debris office told the European Conference on Space Debris in Germany.

“This means urgently developing the means for actively removing debris, targeting about 10 large defunct satellites from orbit each year, beginning as soon as possible – starting later will not be nearly as effective.”

Since 1957, more than 5250 launches have led to more than 23,000 tracked objects in orbit around Earth.

But only about 1200 are working satellites – the rest are debris and no longer serve any useful purpose.

Many derelict craft have exploded or broken up, generating an estimated 750,000 pieces larger than 1 cm and a staggering 166 million larger than 1 mm.

“In orbit, these objects have tremendous relative velocities, faster than a bullet, and can damage or destroy functioning space infrastructure, like economically vital telecom, weather, navigation, broadcast and climate-monitoring satellites,” added Dr Krag.

“Space debris threaten all working satellites, including Europe’s Sentinels and the Galileo navigation constellation, and any loss of space infrastructure would severely affect modern society.

Risks from space debris grows as Earth's obit becomes more crowded Risks from space debris grows as Earth's obit becomes more crowded
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“The sustainable use of space has been persuasively shown to be at risk, and the status quo is obviously no longer acceptable. We must now start removing dead satellites.”

The ESA is currently developing a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme to monitor the debris.  

But ESA Director General Jan Woerner said space agencies must try to keep Earth’s orbital environment as clean as possible.

“In order to enable innovative services for citizens and future developments in space, we must cooperate now to guarantee economically vital spaceflight," he said.

"We must sustain the dream of future exploration.”

The space debris conference included representatives from the national space agencies of Italy, France, Germany and the UK.

“We require a coordinated global solution to what is, after all, a global problem that affects critical satellites delivering services to all of us,” said Brigitte Zypries, German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy.