The space industry is mobilizing to clean up orbits


In 2025, the first active debris-clearance mission, ClearSpace-1, will de-orbit a secondary payload adapter from Europe's Vega launch vehicle, before carrying it off for re-entry into the atmosphere.

Is space threatened by the “tragedy of the commons”, this theory according to which the overexploitation of a common resource leads to its destruction? Is it urgent to set up rules for the protection of the most used orbits, threatened by the proliferation of satellites and space debris ? Gathered in Paris from January 18 to 20 for a workshop on the sustainability of space organized by the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), some 80 players in the field – agencies, satellite manufacturers, operators, providers, from Europe and the United States – unanimously answered yes.

The irruption of private actors in the new space and mega-constellations of satellites providing high-speed Internet, the falling cost of access to space, all of this has changed the situation. « In 2016, recalls Juan Carlos Dolado, space debris specialist and co-founder, in 2022, of the company Look Up Space, there were 1,000 satellites in orbit. Between 2017 and 2019, we launched 1,000 more. In 2020 alone, we launched 1,000 more. And in 2022, we sent 2,100…”

“We are monitoring the start of an exponential”, confirms Vincent Ruch, engineer at CNES and specialist in space surveillance. Currently, between 26,000 and 36,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters revolve above our heads, satellites in operation or out of service, rocket parts, large pieces of debris… However, the more space becomes cluttered, the greater the risk of accidents. With the threat of Kessler syndrome, this phenomenon of chain collisions popularized by the film Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013). We are already recording “between three and ten fragmentations each year, says Vincent Ruch. Some relate to rather passive objects, without much energy, and create little debris. But when it’s the upper stage of a rocket that explodes, it can spawn hundreds of new pieces of debris.”

“Graveyard” orbits

The question of debris is closely linked to that of end-of-life or already dead satellites, because the “wrecks” of space can no longer be maneuvered in the event of a risk of collision and are also the most likely to see their tanks or their batteries explode spontaneously. We can better understand the importance of “passivating” them – that is, of emptying them of all their energy – and of “de-orbiting” them, which, according to current regulations, must be done within twenty-five years after the end of their activity.

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A few years ago, it was estimated that if 90% of decommissioned satellites were scrapped, the amount of debris would not increase. ” Buttempers Vincent Ruch, it was an optimistic scenario that did not take into account accidental fragmentations or the existence of large constellations. » The reality sticks even less to the forecasts that we are very far from the ratio of 90%: the real figure is more around 30%. Consequence: even by ceasing to send machines into orbit, the number of debris would continue to grow.

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