Through the Orbital Prime effort, the U.S. Space Force’s (USSF) innovation arm–SpaceWERX–wants industry to submit innovative ideas by Feb. 17 for space debris mitigation and removal for objects as large as defunct satellites and as small as objects in the centimeter range.
“The Space Force currently tracks more than 40,000 objects in space–only about 5,000 of which are active satellites,” Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David “DT” Thompson said in a video presentation on the SpaceWERX website. “Those 40,000 objects are about the size of one’s fist or larger, but conservative estimates say there are at least 10 times as many smaller objects in orbit that we cannot reliably track, and yet those smaller bits of debris pose as much or greater risk to our satellites as the larger pieces. This debris and associated congestion threaten the long-term sustainability of the space domain.”
“It demands action and provides an opportunity for partnership in the search for innovative solutions to recycle, reuse or remove these objects,” Thompson said. “Potential [SpaceWERX technology] tracks include, but are not limited to, rendezvous and proximity operations; acquisition and capture; and mitigation–such as de-orbit; complete elimination–for example, vaporization; or movement to graveyard orbits.”
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is to hold a series of virtual listening sessions on potential solutions to the problem of orbital debris, as the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Orbital Debris Interagency Working Group develops an implementation plan for release this year (Defense Daily, Dec. 22, 2021).
The implementation plan is to build on the January 2021 National Orbital Debris Research and Development Plan which resulted from the June 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) for the United States to lead space traffic management and space debris mitigation globally.
The Institution for Defense Analyses (IDA) Science and Technology Research Institute is to manage the virtual listening sessions–one on orbital debris remediation on Jan. 13 and one on orbital debris mitigation on Jan. 20.
Russia’s test in November of a direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapon–a collision that generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris–has Space Force wanting more tools, including sensors, to track the debris. USSF wants to use software fusion to build orbits for those new debris pieces.
The Nov. 15 test of the Russian DA-ASAT weapon against one of that nation’s defunct satellites also created hundreds of thousands of smaller debris pieces, U.S. officials said.
Debris removal and satellite repair will likely be important USSF missions in future years.
The Nov. 15 Russian ASAT test generated roughly half the debris of a 2007 Chinese DA-ASAT test that created 3,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters.
The Biden administration held its first National Space Council meeting last month during which Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks condemned ASAT testing and said that DoD wants “all nations agree to refrain from Anti-Satellite weapons testing that creates debris” (Defense Daily, Dec. 1).
Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said during the meeting that the ASAT test was “absolutely a wake up call.” She discussed the Office of Space Commerce (OSC)’s efforts, at congressional direction, to create a space traffic management pilot program and a repository with information on space objects.
Darren McKnight, a senior technical fellow at LeoLabs, told a University of Washington Space Policy and Research Center virtual forum on Jan. 6 that debris, not active satellites, poses the greatest risk to space safety in low Earth orbit–a big concern for spacewatchers, given plans by commercial companies, including SpaceX, to launch tens of thousands of satellites in constellations, such as Starlink. “In reality, 2/3 of the debris-generating potential in low Earth orbit does not come from space traffic management,” he said. “It comes from space debris management. It comes from preventing big, dead things hitting other big, dead things. And, oh, by the way, even a piece of debris from a fragmentation event hitting a rocket body can still cause a catastrophic event.”
LeoLabs, a California-based startup, has six LEO-tracking UHF, S-band, and incoherent scatter radars at four locations–Midland, Texas; Poker Flat, Alaska; New Zealand; and Costa Rica–to help the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron in its space domain awareness mission. The company wants to add 10 more radars at five more sites this year, but McKnight said that the company, as others, has been facing COVID-19 supply chain issues.
McKnight said that a global network of S-band radars would most help space safety in LEO, including the tracking of objects as small as two centimeters.
The 780 to 850 kilometer range in LEO shows a high risk for potential collisions because of the Chinese ASAT test in 2007, rocket bodies abandoned by Russia decades ago, and derelict U.S. payloads and debris from those payloads, McKnight said.
“Unfortunately, it’s a uniquely ironic, collaborative effort by the three major spacefaring countries,” he said.