Close-calls in the cosmos. 
Credit: Naval Research Laboratory (NRL)

 

That new space traffic management policy just signed by U.S. President Donald Trump may not be enough to prevent space objects from crashing into each other.

That’s the ruling of Purdue aerospace professor Carolin Frueh.

Research hasn’t caught up yet with how to reliably characterize and continuously track everything ranging from satellites and rocket boosters to tiny debris. Even if all objects were characterized, most of them can’t control their movement, so crashes are still unpredictable.

The number of objects in space and the frequency of traffic jams also keep increasing, making research from five years ago irrelevant.

In-orbit explosions can be related to the mixing of residual fuel that remain in tanks or fuel lines once a rocket stage or satellite is discarded in Earth orbit. The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of masses and imparted speeds.
Credit: ESA

 

Congested, unpredictable

In a Purdue press release, Frueh, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, suggests that space traffic is much more congested and unpredictable than air traffic here on Earth.

“For air traffic, there are multiple radars tracking several airplanes per hour, but for space traffic, only a few sensors on earth are tracking about 20,000 known objects,” Frueh explains. “If we include the objects that are smaller in size, then we’re talking about 100,000 or more objects that are of interest – and all of them different dimensions.”

Open-access catalog

Trump’s Space Policy Directive 3 calls for establishing an open-access data repository of all known space objects.

Currently, U.S. Strategic Command via the website space-track.org offers a public catalog of around 16,000 unclassified objects of known origin, explains Frueh, but research hasn’t caught up yet with how to reliably characterize and continuously track everything ranging from satellites and rocket boosters to tiny debris.

Chunk of junk zips by the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

“Maintaining an open-access catalog with at least basic information is crucial for the sustainable use of space, but currently the quality of the data is not disclosed – severely hindering development of solutions for space traffic management,” Frueh points out.

Paper studies

“The directive enforces national space debris mitigation standards and best practices, which could mean making it finally mandatory for spacecraft to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years of shutting down,” Frueh said.

“This new legislation also commits the U.S. to exploring active space debris removal, actively taking down defunct satellites so that they no longer pose a risk to other objects. Active removal has so far only been explored theoretically in paper studies.”

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