Space debris in galaxies? The new initiative could create 'significant’ awareness

In recent years, congestion in orbital space has been steadily growing.

This affects astronomers’ ability to conduct science. Space debris damages people and property, and in rare cases, space debris hits homes on the rise.

On a much larger scale, NASA recently announced that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite could hinder its ability to detect dangerous asteroids headed toward Earth.

However, global awareness of the problem is low. Many efforts have come together to raise awareness in recent months and years. One of these, Space Trash Science, used space debris „constellations” to bring attention to the problem.

„Discussions about space debris are mostly confined to closed conference rooms and the space community, but it’s a topic everyone should be aware of,” Dr. Moriba Jha, chief scientist at space sustainability firm Privateer, told IE in an interview. . Wayfinder, a private tracking app, played a key role in Space Trash Signs.

Space Debris „Constellations”

A collaboration of organizations and individuals created the Space Trash Science Initiative. These include Privater, German design agency Moby Dick, visual artist Frank Graf and communications firm Serviceplan Innovation.

The initiative chart depicts „constellations” like star clusters in the night sky. Unlike true star constellations, this debris is not in the same shape as the stars travel across the sky.

Instead, they are composed of pieces of space that fly through Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of about 17,000 mph (27,350 km/h). Privateer tracks these objects as they fly around Earth’s atmosphere, allowing them to use their movements for constellations.

„We wanted to bring this issue more into the public eye,” said Jha, an associate professor at the University of Texas. „It’s also important to reiterate that solving the problem requires a collaborative effort; By partnering with different companies, we can model this – and pool our resources, expertise and technologies to create innovative and effective solutions.”

Anyone can see the constellations of Space Trash Signs exclusively Website. The names of the constellations indicate the potential impact of space debris. They include „The Great 404”, which indicates the possibility of limited Internet access, and „Unavailable Forecast”, which refers to the loss of weather data.

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Clicking on a particular galaxy reveals more information about its individual parts – the debris that makes up the larger shape. The information includes the projected cost of removing debris from space.

„Educating the public and policymakers about the urgency of the space debris problem is critical,” Jha continued. „Informing people can inspire better decision-making and collective action. By visualizing vulnerability through space trash signs, we hope to make the problem concrete and encourage everyone to contribute to the solution.

How AI can help tackle the space debris problem

Privateer’s key role in Space Trash Signs is to bring its surveillance expertise to the table. Co-founded by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the company developed Wayfinder, a tool for tracking objects in space and at sea.

„Sustainability and stewardship are key to what we do,” Jha explained. „The companies that created Space Trash Signs used space object data and information from the privateer’s Wayfinder app, which provides detailed space object tracking data essential to managing space traffic and avoiding collisions.”

„We use advanced predictive models to predict potential collision risks and long-term impacts of debris accumulation, enabling proactive mitigation efforts,” he continued. „We facilitate data sharing and collaboration with international space agencies, satellite operators and other stakeholders to develop integrated debris management.”

„AI performed three key functions in bringing this project to life. It helped us … create a comprehensive database of space debris.

Privateer’s Wayfinder app uses artificial intelligence, which played a key role in creating space junk landmarks. According to Jha, the privateer has helped track more than 40,000 pieces of space debris for signs of space junk. All of these are „well-documented and present significant collision risks,” Jha said, adding that AI has helped track and visualize such large-scale pieces of space.

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„AI provided three key functions in bringing the project to life: data integration, pattern recognition and visualization,” Jha told IE. „This enabled us to collect and process a large amount of data from various sources, including satellites, and create a comprehensive database of space debris.”

„We used it to identify and track patterns of movement of debris, which enabled us to accurately track and predict their trajectories,” he said. „And it turned complex data into visual representations, creating constellations that depict the impact of space debris on a specific space-time snapshot in a way the public can easily understand.”

Work towards a more stable location

Another way the privateer is solving the space sustainability problem is with its ride-sharing spaceship module, Bono. Smaller satellites allow them to serve multiple purposes, and democratize access to their data.

Beyond the private sector, scientists are increasingly organizing against the space debris problem. For example, in 2022, the IAU Center for the Protection of Dark and Silent Skies from Satellite Interference (IAU CPS) was created to organize against unsustainable practices in space.

Image of Privateer’s ride-sharing shuttle module, Bono. Source: Private

Last year, Meredith Rawls, a member of the IAU CPS, said in an interview with IE that astronomers could lose access to space due to increasing space congestion and debris.

More recently, A Report NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy has outlined possible solutions to the space debris problem. The report compares the cost-effectiveness of more than ten actions that space companies and agencies can take to reduce the risk of space debris.

Some scientists believe the scientific community needs to do more. In a 2022 interview with IE, University of Regina astronomer Samantha Lawler compared the reaction to the space debris issue to global denial about climate change. He said he believed SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites were „on the verge” of Kessler syndrome.

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Is Orbital Carrying Capacity Important for Sustainable Space Operations?

Kessler syndrome is a hypothetical destructive effect in Earth’s orbit that results from space debris smashing into a satellite or spacecraft.

Like in the movie 'Gravity’, the impact will create more space debris, resulting in a cascading effect. The resulting increase in space debris will have more impacts, creating more debris until the atmosphere is filled with debris. This is basically a worst-case scenario for space debris.

Some scientists see Kessler syndrome as a gradual, cumulative effect that has already begun. However, Jha believes it is better to focus on another consideration when it comes to space stability, called orbital carrying capacity.

„I don’t understand the theory of Kessler syndrome traditionally,” Jah explained to IE. „Instead, I believe in the concept of orbital carrying capacity. This idea focuses on the threshold at which the use of a particular orbital segment becomes unsustainable due to undesirable operational, economic, and environmental consequences. It is about the practical limits of managing orbital highways.

„As the density of satellites and debris increases, we are approaching or exceeding the orbital carrying capacity for some regions, leading to compromised operational capabilities and increased risks,” Jha continued. „We must proactively manage orbital carrying capacity through robust space traffic management, debris reduction strategies and international cooperation to maintain stable orbital environments.”


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About the editor

Chris Young Chris Young is a journalist, copywriter, blogger and tech geek who has reported on Lifehack, The Culture Trip, Flytoscope and Robots, written for the world’s biggest tech giants NEC and Thales, and Mobile World Congress. , satellites and other world-changing inventions.

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