3 min read.Updated: 17 Nov 2021, 08:53 PM ISTMicah Maidenberg, The Wall Street Journal
Companies navigate debris as they spend billions of dollars to develop businesses in space
Orbital debris created when a Russian missile destroyed a defunct satellite on Monday adds to a problem for the nascent space industry: navigating a growing field of space junk.
The spray of debris generated by the missile test comes as companies and investors spend billions of dollars to send new satellites into the lower reaches of orbit, build space stations and launch private astronauts. Government officials have said junk could slam into satellites or other hardware, disabling operations or even destroying equipment.
“It makes doing business in orbit a little more difficult," said Bill Nelson, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has supported expansion in the space sector by hiring private companies to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Michael Suffredini, chief executive at Axiom Space Inc., a Houston-based company managing private-astronaut trips to the current space station and developing its own facility, said that larger objects created by the missile test can be accounted for and that some small ones will decay. Not every piece can be expected to disappear or be monitored, he said.
“There’s still debris that’s in a range that’s not reliably tracked, that will hang around and hang around for a long time," Mr. Suffredini said. Axiom doesn’t expect to lose any clients related to concern over debris, he said.
Junk orbiting the Earth—old satellites and rocket parts as well as bits of metal created by missile tests and satellite collisions—has long been monitored by government officials and space-industry executives. As of May, the Pentagon was tracking more than 27,000 pieces of debris in space, NASA has said.
Most of those items were larger than a softball, but some were as small as 2 inches, according to the space agency.
The Russian missile test created an additional 1,500 pieces large enough to be tracked, as well as hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, according to the U.S. State Department. After the missile strike, the seven crew members on board the International Space Station carried out emergency procedures and sheltered in two spacecraft docked to the facility as it twice passed through or near the debris, NASA has said.
On Tuesday, Russian officials defended the country’s decision to test its missile. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement cited by its television channel, Zvezda, that the U.S. knows that fragments resulting from the test “did not represent and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities."
A White House official later in the day criticized the action, saying the debris will continue to stand as “a direct threat to activities in outer space for years to come and puts at risk satellites all nations rely on for national security, economic prosperity and scientific discovery."
Other countries’ militaries have created space debris when testing weapons. In 2007, China shot a satellite in space, and the U.S. followed suit a year later, according to news reports. The Indian government used a missile to destroy a satellite in 2019.
The 2007 Chinese test created more than 3,500 pieces of debris that can be tracked, most of which are still in orbit, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The U.S. test generated 175 pieces, all of which have re-entered, and one piece of debris remains in space related to India’s missile, he said.
Michael Mealling, general partner at Starbridge Venture Capital, said the space technology-focused company is concerned about challenges that could arise for satellite operators if debris crowds out orbits.
LeoLabs, a company that uses radar to track space debris, had found pieces of the satellite destroyed in the Russian test at altitudes ranging from 273 miles to 323 miles, according to a spokeswoman.
Russia’s test shows the need for new rules governing how space can be used, some industry executives said.
Steve Collar, chief executive of SES SA, a satellite company that plans to deploy satellites to lower-end orbits, said Russia’s test pointed to the need to have “all nations behaving responsibly in space, and this is pretty irresponsible." More debris in lower-end orbits probably wouldn’t change his company’s efforts, he said.
Countries need to agree that they won’t carry out activities that generate debris “to the extent they can harm the people living on these space stations," said Jeffrey Manber, president of international and space stations at Voyager Space, which has a subsidiary that is developing a station called Starlab with Lockheed Martin Corp.