Wherever people go, machines overtake us. Since the 1950s, humanity has sent satellites deeper into space than ever imagined possible – including the moon, Mars, outer planets, and even interstellar space.
However, in low Earth orbit, the future of space looks terrible – full of more than 7,500 metric tons of space debris from half a century of scientific, military and (mostly) commercial satellites. The universe will soon become a $ 2.7 trillion industry, with mega-constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink filling the night sky with commercial traffic.
If we continue to send mass into the orbit of the low Earth, we will have to find a way to de-orbit the debris, while ensuring that new additions to the metal cloud are short-lived.
The future of space could depend on self-destructive satellites
SpaceX’s constellation of Internet satellites Starlink is growing faster than any other satellite program – which launched at least 60 satellites this year, and a total of 1,100 – with plans to have about 42,000 in orbit. Although they are designed to go out of orbit naturally when their engines die, in the meantime they add significant activity to an already busy metal shell.
In addition, Starlink satellites can disrupt astronomical observations of space from Earth. SpaceX is developing “dimmed” models of its Starlink (called DarSats), designed to be less reflective than earlier models – and thus seem less visible to terrestrial observers, a recent study suggests that darkened models will not reduce the “noise” of light pollution.
Self-destructive satellites can help reduce space debris
On Thursday, a Dutch Internet of Things (IoT) company called Hiber announced that its recently launched second-generation CubeSat – called Hiber Four – has a built-in drive, which will help engineers take it away from potential collisions. But most importantly, the low-mass satellite will also orbit itself, returning to the atmosphere and burning up after depleting its lifespan.
The Japan Space Agency (JAKSA) also plans to test a self-destructing satellite – with the goal of adapting its proliferating low-orbit (LEO) fleet to commercial proportions, without adding a space debris shell.
Japanese micro-satellite technology could offer a commercial alternative
The technology was developed through a Japanese satellite killer launcher, called ALE Co., and aims to arm satellites with a carbon nanotube cathode, along with an electrodynamic bond. Once the satellite completes its mission, it will unwind the grid, creating an instantaneous current between the satellite and the cathode.
Reacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, combined with Earth’s gravity and minute friction present in a very high atmosphere, will pull the satellite into the hell of mechanical death – leaving a blank space in its orbital trail.
The new technology will be tested on a micro-satellite in 2021 – and if it succeeds, JAKSA hopes to sell it to commercial satellite manufacturers.
“The development of devices with this joint demonstration on board will make it possible to reduce the number of remaining satellites in low Earth orbit, which is expected to increase rapidly in the future, and thus prevent the generation of large amounts of hazardous waste caused by collisions with other space debris.” the agency said, according to a report from Register.
What we do on Earth reflects what we will do on Mars
However, how do we know where to look to clean up space debris and how can we know if our efforts are working? A company called Northstar “monitors the universe, from space, via a constellation of satellites with dedicated optical sensors,” according to the company’s website.
Northstar does this through an expansive 3D catalog of the surrounding space environment based on data – using advanced SSA analytics to provide key information so other commercial and public parties can navigate safely through LEO.
Satellites and unscrewed spaceships have taken human exploration far. With an ever-growing network of IoT technology and society’s reliance on geostationary satellites – added to rapidly growing commercial interests, we should be sure to learn how to control the garbage factor on Earth, before building a presence on the Moon and Mars.