If Thomas Pesquet’s flight has brought the space world back into the spotlight in the last few days, it has also raised the problem of space debris, a real danger on our planet. On the way to the peaceful trip to the ISS, the French astronaut and his fellow travelers received one of the most disturbing radio messages: “You are on the path of the rubble, it is too late to try an evasive maneuver,” announced the Houston control center the sudden turn of events was also helpless.
Those little debris did not finally cross the Strait of Thomas Pesquet and his crew Dragon capsule (they grazed 45 kilometers away), a fear the French would have done well for his return to space, bringing the space debris problem back to the center of the world Debate.
Coincidentally, Leolabs – a private company specializing in orbit surveillance – announced the online launch of its brand new radar in Costa Rica this Sunday, a few hours after the ESA astronaut arrived on the ISS. Just nine months after starting work, this new type of radar should enable the localization of space debris in low orbit.
“The most advanced of its kind”
According to Dan Ceperley, CEO of the company, it is simply “the most advanced commercial radar of its kind”. The latter could, for example, record and calculate the trajectory of a golf ball that is launched around our planet at 30,000 kilometers per hour.
For the company’s co-founder, Edward Lu, the arrival of this new radar will make it possible to complete the low orbit coverage made by LeoLabs and give all of the company’s partners access to a new mountain of data.
This radar also has the specialty of detecting the smallest debris. The latter were not detectable until then and represented the greatest risk of collision in orbit, but also with the ISS, the international space station. The latter is also regularly forced to perform evasive maneuvers in order not to collide with bolts, launchers and other debris of all kinds.
Today LeoLabs has four radars around the world making it a leader in “low orbit object tracking” by far. The company, based in Menlo Park, California, obviously works closely with NASA, but also with American Defense and ESA. The European Space Agency is heavily involved in the fight against space debris and is currently developing a tool to be sent into space to “clean up” Earth orbit.
Space pollution: tomorrow’s question
As more and more people turn their eyes to the sky, the sky becomes more and more congested and seems closer to implosion than ever before. Using constellations like Starlink will further increase the number of satellites in low orbit, which de facto increases the risk of collisions between them.
If the drama with the flight from Crew Dragon to the ISS were barely avoided, such fears could arise on a daily basis in the future, as the spread of satellites and their poor resolution occurs without regulation. Space has long been a lawless zone, where launches have been made without ever considering the “ecological” issue.
While laws and standards are being put in place, especially under the guidance of the CNES and ÉSA, they are still fairly light and, in fact, not always respected. The ability to put a satellite into orbit is still great enough that many companies don’t care whether the launch was clean or not, just whether it was successful.