SpaceX, MarsOne, and Virgin Galactic All Face One Huge Problem: Space Debris


Space debris, which so far has only been caused by national space programs, is poised to become a more pressing problem as private companies start pushing commercial space flights. Most of the space debris currently orbits the Earth; however, this week Jeff Bezos and his BlueOrigin team recovered the remnants of two Apollo rocket engines from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The engines are only some of the debris from Apollo missions found by Bezos' team, who described the site as "an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end." 

The two F-1 engines are yet to be tied to a specific Apollo mission, but the hope is that they belong to Apollo 11, which took the first astronauts to the moon. Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, started BlueOrigin in the new race for commercial space flight, joining companies like Tesla founder Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

As recently as January this year a piece of a Chinese missile test collided with a Russian satellite rendering the latter unusable. The collision also caused a part of the Russian satellite to break off and is now part of the mass of debris already floating out there, which includes everything from used rocket stages, old or defunct satellites, and disintegrated fragments of satellites or space ships.

See NASA's simulated map of space debris:

NASA's most recent count records 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm below the 2000 km altitude around the Earth, with more than 300,000 smaller than 1cm. Debris larger than 10cm requires changing the orbits of spacecrafts and satellites to avoid collision because those events can result in fragments over 2 pounds being released into the already dense field of space debris currently surrounding Earth, and moving as fast as 17,000 mph. 

As more satellites and spacecrafts launch into orbit and pass Earth's satellite belt, there will be an increased risk of triggering the Kessler syndrome, a chain reaction caused by the creation of new debris outpacing the natural processes of disintegration of older debris. If future space programs aren't proactive about reducing space debris, they could effectively create a battlefield of debris attacking everything in orbit, especially low-earth orbit objects like weather satellites. NASA considers this enough of a serious problem that in 2011 they recommended creating a laser to shoot down the debris.

Other ideas have included sending an unmanned barge to use robot arms to collect individual pieces of debris, a space Wall-E. Another idea involved expanding the use of aerogel, a light polystyrene-like material that is used to collect space dust for research, by sending out massive panels that would accumulate space debris like a sticky mouse-trap. An aerospace firm is already testing how to catch space rubble like fish nets.

The entrance of private firms into space has the potential to produce even more harrowing space tragedies than the destruction of Columbia and the death of the astronauts on board, or the Russian space station Mir's suicidal nosedive into the Pacific in 2001. However, the commercialization of space could spur on funding of research to tackle the serious problem of space debris, since it poses some of the biggest threats to success of private (and national) space programs. If necessity is the mother of invention, hopefully we can expect to see better solutions than giant space nets and fly catchers to help solve the space debris problem.