The cost of launching satellites has dropped dramatically, crowding in low Earth orbit (LEO) is rising exponentially, the risk of collisions between spacecraft is higher than it’s ever been, and regulators are way behind in efforts to police the situation.
That was the message delivered by E-Space Founder and CEO Greg Wyler at a workshop hosted by the European Space Agency (ESA), Nov. 4, 2022, in Amsterdam. It was combined with a series of actions Wyler said could help address the situation. A critical first step is identifying the orbital carrying capacity in space — a measure of the mass of the satellite multiplied by the satellite’s surface area (or cross-sectional area) times the number of objects in space — among other factors.
At present, however, he said there’s a kind of land grab going on, where those first to “plant a flag” in space are saying “it’s mine.”
While some dismiss the problem of orbital debris as something satellites can just avoid by maneuvering out the way, Wyler pointed out that such a view doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“There’s over a million units of objects less than 10 centimeters in space,” he said. “We can’t see them, so you can’t move out of the way of something you can’t see.”
Disabled satellites, he noted, are also incapable of guided movement to avoid debris.
Wyler proposed some ways to counter the growing threat of orbital debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) and very low Earth orbit (VLEO) once orbital carrying capacity is defined. One is to encourage or compel satellite operators to build spacecraft with lower mass and smaller cross-sections to reduce the risk of collision.
“This is a fundamental issue,” he said. “As spacecraft get larger with bigger cross-sections, they effectively take up an enormous amount of the space that could be shared with others. So, we're really moving to a place where the probability of collision is increasing dramatically with the size of the spacecraft.”
Part of the lack of concern about size and efficiency, he said, is driven by lower-cost launches where operators don’t think they need to be as thoughtful about design. E-Space is designing its satellites with those considerations as a driving principle, he added, touching on the set of tenets the company is following to create more sustainable satellites: small cross-sectional area, low-mass spacecraft that fail safely and demise fully with no component release.
“Today we see some satellites with 100 or 200 square meters of solar panels that are just giant barn doors for getting hit by all this debris,” he said. “It’s a huge issue and regulators need to take note of the cross-sectional areas of satellites.”
Spacecraft with lower mass also have strong benefits, he added.
“Lower mass is not just good because it’s cheaper to launch, it also means that if there is a collision, you’re going to have a lot fewer objects in space that will cause problems for everyone else,” Wyler said.
While reducing the risk of component release is something many in the industry are attuned to, he said failing safely isn’t so obvious.
“Many satellites, when they break, they become rocks in space — big chunks of mass moving at a very high velocity. People have not been designing their satellites to fail into a safe mode that automatically de-orbits, and that’s something that needs to really be considered at a high level.”
Making satellites that fully demise to prevent debris from falling to Earth is another obvious and important consideration, he said, with recent episodes largely driven by highly pressurized fuel-storage vessels that don’t burn up in the atmosphere and make their way to the ground.
The last of the six E-Space tenets — “entrain and de-orbit” — drew several questions from the audience since it concerns a more forward-looking idea to one day create spacecraft that can actually help clean space as part of their own demise.
“It’s raised a lot of eyebrows,” Wyler said. “Can you operate in a way that your satellite won't explode when you're hit by some errant object, and can you operate in a way where you actually catch the object and that becomes part of the standard of design as opposed to something you might think about later?”
Wyler said that while regulators may still be years behind on the issue of orbital debris, Europe and the ESA have been more proactive lately in looking at the problem.
“I do applaud the European Space Agency, and a lot of the regulators are starting to lean in heavily,” he said. “It’s moved from not even understanding the problem 10 years ago to having lots of discussion about the problem now — and a few small pieces of regulation that have come through.”
With more than 150 nations potentially becoming spacefaring in the next 10 or 20 years, Wyler said it’s incumbent upon today’s leaders to ensure they’ll be able to be take advantage of the space environment. Part of that could mean connecting the granting of landing rights only to satellite operators with sustainably designed spacecraft.
“There needs to be a big discussion and great pressure at the political level to unify how we’re going to meet these standards,” he said.
The problem, he added, is that there hasn’t yet been enough conversation to agree on the standards themselves.
“If we can’t define how much space is in space, then we will not be able to regulate it,” Wyler said. “Once we have this defined and agreed to in some meaningful way, we can then move to an equitable apportionment of space to allow people to take up their fair share.”