In the vast expanse of outer space, an increasing concern is taking shape closer to our home planet – the issue of space debris. Often referred to as ‘space junk’, this debris includes defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, and millions of smaller fragments, all remnants of human activity in space. In the wake of increasing concerns about space debris, or ‘space junk’, stakeholders from around the globe are rallying to find solutions. The UK Space Agency estimates that there are currently around 37,000 objects larger than 10cm and approximately 130 million smaller than 1cm orbiting Earth.
This vast volume of space debris poses a significant threat to both manned and unmanned space missions. Even tiny paint flecks from rockets can cause damage to operational satellites due to their high velocity. The World Economic Forum warns that the amount of debris in near-earth orbit could increase exponentially with the projected rise in satellite deployment.
More alarming still is the Kessler Syndrome, a scenario envisioned by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, which describes a cascading effect where collisions between pieces of debris create more debris, potentially leading to a catastrophic chain reaction.
In response to this growing threat, various stakeholders, including governments, research institutions, and private sector companies, are seeking solutions to mitigate the space debris problem.
The UK Space Agency is also funding research into refuelling an upcoming mission to remove space debris. Planned for launch in 2026, a total of £2 million is available for feasibility studies that can demonstrate the ability to refuel a UK national debris removal mission and look at opportunities for refuelling a commercial satellite as well. This is a Small Business Research initiative (SBRI) competition, which is an exciting prospect for players within the space innovation ecosystem.
Imraan Saloojee of the Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (RIIS) believes that addressing the space debris challenge requires not just technological innovation, but also the creation of a robust and sustainable space innovation ecosystem.
RIIS was recently invited to take part in an African-United Kingdom space technology knowledge exchange tour which was organised by Innovate UK KTN, which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the national funding agency investing in science and research in the United Kingdom. As well as RIIS, African space actors from Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa were invited to take part in the knowledge exchange tour.
The tour included specific discussions around sustainability with the UK Space Agency and ESSI, which is the Earth Space Sustainability Initiative that has collated the world’s current space sustainability standards and guidelines, and related finance and insurance principles and metrics.
Saloojee says, “The issue of space debris underscores the need for sustainable practices in space exploration. This involves nurturing smaller sector players, fostering collaboration, and encouraging responsible behaviour in space exploration and usage. “
Notably, twenty-six aerospace companies have pledged not to conduct destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, which can significantly contribute to space debris. This was announced by the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a nonprofit organisation focused on secure and sustainable use of space, in November. In September 2022, the United States introduced a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly calling for an end to ASAT testing. Since then, 37 nations have joined the cause.
ASAT tests, which involve the destruction or impairment of satellites, pose a significant threat to space exploration. These tests can produce long-lasting orbital debris that endangers national assets, commercial spacecraft, human spaceflight platforms, and the daily space-based services relied upon by humanity. Furthermore, the debris generated by ASAT tests could stifle future economic activity and innovation in low Earth orbit by escalating operational costs and creating uncertainty for investors and operators.
Saloojee continues, “Embracing and growing smaller sector players fuels the development of the space ecosystem. We must navigate responsibly, ensuring that our actions today do not compromise the future of space exploration. By fostering a sustainable space innovation ecosystem, we can ensure that the final frontier remains open for generations to come.”
RIIS, with the support of The RISA Fund, is championing the development of these ecosystems and has worked with African government agencies and the private sector in identifying gaps and opportunities within Africa’s space economy.
For more information about RIIS and its work, please contact us at email@example.com.