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The Rising Challenge of Space Debris

Strategic Security Analysis - 2017


Gustav Lindstrom

Laurent Muhlematter

Release Date:

November 2017

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Key Points

  • There are an estimated 500,000 marble-sized or larger debris objects (≥1 cm) orbiting Earth, some 23,000 of which are tracked and monitored (≥10 cm).
  • The impact of a 1-cm-sized debris on a spacecraft is approximately equivalent to the energy released by an exploding hand grenade.
  • Debris can adversely affect the functionality of satellites or other assets, including services such as earth observation, timing/ navigation/positioning services, telecommunications, and space science.
  • Low-Earth orbit is presently the most congested orbit. It may have reached saturation point, requiring active debris removal activities to mitigate the problem over the long run.
  • All three orbits (LEO, MEO, HEO/GEO) will become more congested over time. Contributing factors include the rising commercial interest in space and the rapid increase in the use of small satellites such as picosats, nanosatellites/cubesats and microsats.
  • Certain mitigation measures, such as installing mobility features into small satellites to facilitate de-orbiting, could also be used for “offensive” space manoeuvres.
  • There are numerous internationally accepted best practices to mitigate space debris, but these may not be sufficient to stop or reverse debris growth.