Responsible satellite operations and space rubbish

There are thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) today and the forecast is that there will soon be many more. This is why all the major space agencies and companies dedicated to working in the aerospace sector are concerned about making responsible components that help to eliminate space waste and keep it to a minimum.

It is becoming increasingly important to develop responsible technologies that can help to preserve this environment for future generations. NASA drafted its first standards to reduce the amount of waste in 1995, and it was soon followed by other specialist organizations such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the European Space Agency, among others. While these published regulations were a valuable starting point, and ensured that progress was made, their implementation has been slow and they need to be updated due to the exponential growth in satellite activities.

The current problem of space waste is mostly due to explosions that occur in orbit, caused by the leftover energy (fuel and batteries) on spacecraft and rockets. Despite all the measures that have been taken to prevent this, the numbers have not declined. Although the practice of eliminating materials at the end of their mission has improved matters, the application of these practices is slow, according to Holger Krag, director of the Space Safety Program of the ESA.

The international directives and regulations that apply when designing responsible missions include the following.

Avoid overlaying major constellations at different altitudes. This is done to prevent collisions and the creation of space waste, and requires lots of painstaking planning and procedures, because operating more than one constellation in the same part of space is like having various dance performances on the same stage.

Fast and reliable elimination of spacecraft when their mission is complete. A LEO satellite is expected to fall out of orbit within the 25 years following the termination of its mission, but this period must be reduced to prevent risks. For example, there are experimental satellites that are only operational for 6 months, so they should not spend the next 25 years in orbit.

Spacecraft must be designed with the capacity to exhaust their resources, which means that they must drain their batteries and any fuel or pressurised gas. This would be of great help to prevent explosions.

Objects that fall out of orbit must not pose a significant risk to people or property on the Earth’s surface. Today we can design satellites that disintegrate when they re-enter the atmosphere, to ensure that no (or very little) waste falls to Earth. If they cannot be “designed to disappear”, those responsible must be able to control their return to uninhabited areas.

Space is a natural resource that we share, and all the interested parties must use responsible design and operating practices if we want to keep space usable for the long term. At Solar MEMS, we make components with nanotechnology of the smallest possible size, and our technology is fully compliant with the importance of sustainability in space.