Without risk, there can be no reward worth having. Space offers plenty of both. The risks begin the moment we set out riding into space on a column of fire.
Millions of systems and software codes have to work right to keep failure at bay. Upon reaching orbit, we find only a vacuum filled with deadly heat, cold and radiation. Everything we fly must operate and even support human life in a place where nothing can live.
We can do it only because more than half a century of engineering experience goes with us and that has made space a very rewarding place – a place where we do billions of dollars’ worth of business –something unimaginable at the dawn of the space age.
Managing Old Risks and New
The old risks remain, and we have added new ones. For that same half century, we’ve been littering the road to space with rocket engines, failed satellites and broken equipment. Earth orbit holds almost 100 million pieces of debris moving at blazing speeds.
A piece of junk may be no bigger than a softball but can hit with the force of a bomb. When things collide in orbit, they make more debris. In just one incident, a failed Russian spacecraft smashed into a commercial satellite. And in an instant, thousands more pieces of junk were added to the sky.
We also keep launching satellites by the hundreds and thousands. The more we launch, the closer comes the day when Earth orbit could become a minefield that neither people nor machines dare enter. Without meaning to, we could close the road to our future.
Keeping the Road Open for Future Generations
How can we keep it open? Government and industry are making new rules for spacecraft to stop adding to the threat. Success depends on cooperation between space faring nations. That’s hard, but we’ve been doing it for decades.
Companies and space agencies are testing ways to get rid of the most dangerous debris. It’s incredibly hard – like catching a softball moving at 20 times faster than the speed of sound – but the work goes on.
Governments and industry are also building better radar systems to track debris. Automatic warnings will give operators time to move spacecraft out of the way as the International Space Station does today. We are designing for a future of constant maneuvering in orbit that will test the ingenuity of engineers like nothing before.
But that’s hardly new. Space junk is just the latest risk we face on our long journey to the stars. If we tackle it with the same skill and dedication as those who came before us, generations to come will have the chance to travel an open road to limitless possibility.
This Better Satellite World video was produced as part of the Reducing the Risks of Space campaign, underwritten by the Space Shuttle Children’s Trust Fund. The Space Shuttle Children’s Trust Fund was established in 1986 after the explosion of the Challenger shuttle to raise funds for the children whose parents died in the disaster. The fund was later expanded to also raise money for the children of the Columbia shuttle disaster. Over a period of six weeks in May and June of 2023, the Reducing the Risks of Space campaign explored policy, law, technology and operations in development now to manage the challenging space environment of the future. Click here to learn more.