ESA Is Ready For A Global Initiative To Tackle Space Debris

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This week, the 7th European Conference on Space Debris is taking place in Germany, which aims to connect experts and policymakers to present, discuss, and debate the latest research on the pressing problem that is space debris.

“Space debris is a global issue. We are all concerned about it, everybody who’s flying a spacecraft. And this is why I believe this problem can only be solved globally, if we all stick together, if we all put our resources together,” Rolf Densing, European Space Agency (ESA) director of operations, said during the opening of the conference. “ESA is ready to contribute its 40 years of experience and expertise into a global initiative.”

There are over 700,000 objects bigger than 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) orbiting our planet. They are moving at about 11 kilometers (6 miles) per second, which means even the smaller fragments pack a punch equivalent to a hand grenade.

Even specks of paint and small fragments (170 million objects larger than 1 millimeter) can become incredibly dangerous. Just last year, a tiny piece of debris managed to chip one of the windows of the International Space Station. And the biggest space junk is the Envisat spacecraft, which weighs 8 tons and is as big as a bus.

This is usually the moment when one points out that this behemoth moves at the same speed as the little guys, so we ought to do something about it. We don’t have to deal with this problem because it’s scary – currently, the chances of a collision are quite low. We have to deal with this issue because it’s only going to get worse otherwise.

What most scientists are worried about is not a direct collision, but the so-called Kessler syndrome. This is a worst-case scenario where the density of debris is so high that collisions between objects generate a cascade of space debris, which collide with more objects and so on. If this scenario comes to pass, our access to space might be compromised, thus researchers and policymakers want to intervene before it’s too late.

The conference goal is to define future directions of research, both in terms of reducing the number of debris we currently take into orbit and how to reduce the amount of space junk that is already there. 

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