On a dark night in 2006 I was bicycle commuting to my office, oblivious to the countless man made objects orbiting in the sky above me at thousands of miles per hour. My attention was instead focused on a northbound car speeding through a freeway underpass at dozens of miles per hour, oblivious to my southbound headlamp. The car swerved into the left turn lane to get to the freeway on-ramp. The problem? I was only a few feet from crossing the entrance to that very on-ramp! As the car rushed through their left turn I was presented with a split second decision: slow, and possibly stop in the middle of the on-ramp, or just go for it and hope for the best.
By law I had the right of way. But this was no time to start discussing right of way with the driver of the vehicle that threatened to turn me into a dark spot on the road. I followed my gut instinct, and my legs burned in compliance as I sped across that on-ramp entrance with all my might. The oncoming car missed my rear wheel by mere feet! What could have ended in disaster and possibly even death had resulted in a near miss.
Terrestrial vehicles generally have laws and regulations that specify and enforce proper behavior. I had every right to expect the oncoming car be observant of their surroundings or to at least slow to a normal speed before making that turn. In contrast, traffic control in Earth orbit conjures up thoughts of bargain-crazed shoppers packed into a big box store on Black Friday.
So is spacecraft traffic in orbit really a free-for-all? If there were stringent rules, how can they be enforced? Before we explore the answers to those questions, let’s examine the problem we’re here to discuss: stuff in space running into other stuff in space.
There’s no shortage of ways a satellite in low Earth orbit can fail during the course of its mission. Even in the best case scenario, the craft needs to survive bombardment by cosmic rays and tremendous temperature variations. To have even a chance of surviving the worst, such as a hardware fault or collision with a rogue piece of space garbage, it needs to be designed with robust redundancies which can keep everything running in the face of systemic damage. Of course, before any of that can even happen it will need to survive the wild ride to space; so add high-G loads and intense vibrations to the list of things which can kill your expensive bird.
After all the meticulous engineering and expense involved in putting a satellite into orbit, you might think it would get a hero’s welcome at the end of its mission. But in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The great irony is that after all the time and effort it takes to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving the rigors of spaceflight, in the end, its operators will more than likely command the craft to destroy itself by dipping its orbit down into the Earth’s atmosphere. The final act of a properly designed satellite will likely be to commit itself to the same fiery fate it had spent years or even decades avoiding.
You might be wondering how engineers design a spacecraft that is simultaneously robust enough to survive years in the space environment while at the same time remaining just fragile enough that it completely burns up during reentry. Up until fairly recently, the simple answer is that it wasn’t really something that was taken into account. But with falling launch prices promising to make space a lot busier in the next few years, the race is on to develop new technologies which will help make sure that a satellite is only intact for as long as it needs to be.
We’re sure you already know there’s a space junk issue in orbit. But did you know that NASA tracks a half-million pieces of orbital debris? Cleaning that up does sound like a good thing. The plan is to detect the offending item, match its trajectory, grab it somehow (which includes halting any spinning that it’s doing), then encapsulating everything for an eventual re-entry. Looks like they plan on the whole robot burning up along with the junk during that final stage.