Shrapnel from destroyed satellites could damage other satellites or cause disruptions throughout the world. (Image credit: Flickr)
Space is a mess. One bolt speeding around in orbit could rip right through a spacecraft!
International space agencies, governments, and former astronauts have signed an open letter released by the Outer Space Institute (OSI) to curb anti-satellite weapon testing due to the potential damage to other low-earth satellites and the International Space Station. The weapons were developed by the US and Russia back in the 1950s and are still in use today. The weapons are kinetic in nature, meaning they physically explode and use shrapnel on the designated "kill vehicle," creating even more shrapnel that ultimately gets locked into orbit.
It has been reported that Russia conducted non-destructive tests in 2020 of space-based anti-satellite weaponry, while China is currently developing missiles and electronic warfare weapons capable of targeting high and low-earth orbit satellites. The US is also complicit, and in 1985 outfitted an F-15 with an ASM-135 ASAT and successfully shot down a defunct solar observatory, the first time a fighter aircraft managed to do so. A few months beforehand, NASA learned of the ASAT test and modeled the effects of the test, noting that debris would still be in orbit well into the 1990s. This forced the space agency to enhance shielding for the then-planned space station.
The US is also planning to unveil a new space weapon capable of degrading or destroying target satellites and spacecraft, directed under the newly-minted Space Force/Space Command branch of the US Air Force. It's estimated that there are over 128-million pieces of space garbage smaller than 1cm in earth's orbit, along with 900,000 pieces up to 10cm and 34,000 larger than a roll of quarters. Of course, that debris is intermixed with over 7,500 active and defunct satellites currently in orbit. Add to that the speed at which that trash is orbiting, and the odds are good that they will strike functioning satellites at some point. Back in May of this year, a piece of space debris hit a robotic arm on the ISS, so it's not uncommon for damage to happen at any time.
While the large number of satellites currently in orbit have a good chance of being hit debris, that number is expected to skyrocket with the introduction of "mega constellations," such as Space X StarLink (42,000 satellites), Amazon's Kuiper (3,236 satellites), OneWeb (7,000 satellites), and others. It will be interesting to see how the next decade will unfold, considering most spacefaring nations have no intention of canceling satellite-destroying weapons.
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This isn't the first space debris collection effort. Read about more in these links: