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Space junk is a problem but don’t blame it on ISRO

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Feb 16, 2017 10:22 PM IST

The ISRO sent 104 satellites into orbit on Wednesday and the wild applause was soon followed by growing mutterings about India’s space agency adding to space junk. But it’s irrational to blame the agency.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) sent 104 satellites into orbit on Wednesday and the wild applause was soon followed by growing mutterings about India’s space agency adding to space junk.

India’s space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launch a record 104 satellites from Sriharikota on Wednesday, Feb 16, 2017.(PTI)
India’s space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launch a record 104 satellites from Sriharikota on Wednesday, Feb 16, 2017.(PTI)

However, it’s irrational to blame the agency.

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If anything, carrying multiple payloads lowers orbital debris as each rocket used to send satellites to space also adds to the space junk.

ISRO is also ideally located for launches because its proximity to the Equator gives the rockets an extra velocity kick into space so they use less fuel to launch heavier payloads.

And unlike space tourism, satellites serve a practical purpose, providing data that support communication, navigation, scientific research, weather observation, military support, earth imaging, among others. Each time you navigate using global positioning system (GPS), for example, you use a group of more than 20 satellites that determine where you are.

“ISRO has developed the models and software for statistical analysis of risk due to space debris and close approach of debris to the functional satellites and to prevent in-orbit break-up by designing spacecraft to be not susceptible to on-orbit explosion,” said an ISRO scientist, who did not want to be named.

NASA’s computer-generated images of objects currently in the Earth’s orbit. About 95% of the objects in the illustrations are space junk (not-functional satellites). The GEO images use a distant oblique vantage point to provide an overview of the orbital debris in the geosynchronous region (35,785 km altitude). (NASA)
NASA’s computer-generated images of objects currently in the Earth’s orbit. About 95% of the objects in the illustrations are space junk (not-functional satellites). The GEO images use a distant oblique vantage point to provide an overview of the orbital debris in the geosynchronous region (35,785 km altitude). (NASA)

Space junk

Since the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 by the former Soviet Union in 1957, dozens of countries have launched satellites, with close to 3,000 working satellites still orbiting the Earth. These functional satellites are just a fraction of the than 500,000 pieces of dead satellites ranging from the size of a marble to much bigger machines that continue to orbit the Earth.

There are many millions of smaller pieces of dead spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris that are too tiny to be tracked.

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, Nasa chief scientist for orbital debris. Debris shields can withstand impacts of particles smaller than 1 cm.

Space junk travels at speeds up to 30,000 km an hour, which turns tiny pieces of orbital debris into deadly shrapnel that can damage satellites, space shuttles, space stations and spacecraft with humans aboard.

Aluminum oxide slag is a by-product of solid rocket motor (SRM) that are used to boost satellites into higher orbits. This piece was recovered from a test firing of a Shuttle solid rocket booster. (NASA)
Aluminum oxide slag is a by-product of solid rocket motor (SRM) that are used to boost satellites into higher orbits. This piece was recovered from a test firing of a Shuttle solid rocket booster. (NASA)

In 2009, a dead Russian satellite and a functioning US satellite collided and added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,000 pieces to space junk.

And the debris will remain orbiting for several decades. In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.

G Madhavan Nair, a former ISRO chairman, was quoted as saying in reports that as the size and weight of new satellites come down there was “no limit” to the number that can be launched at a time.

“We are all concerned about space debris…After that, it becomes a dead mass floating in space. Personally, I will not recommend such an increase in the number without a practical purpose,” he said.

An artist’s impression of a rocket’s upper stage explosion. (EPA)
An artist’s impression of a rocket’s upper stage explosion. (EPA)

Tracking debris

A multi-object tracking radar (MOTR) developed by the Satish Dhawan Space Centre allows ISRO to track 10 objects simultaneously. It tracks India’s space assets and space debris, for which India was solely dependent on data provide by the US space agency NASA till early 2016.

ISRO is a member of Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) which coordinates global efforts to reduce man-made and natural space debris by sharing research and identifying debris mitigation options.
IADC member agencies include:
  • ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana)
  • CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales)
  • CNSA (China National Space Administration)
  • CSA (Canadian Space Agency)
  • DLR (German Aerospace Center)
  • ESA (European Space Agency)
  • ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation)
  • JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)
  • KARI (Korea Aerospace Research Institute)
  • NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
  • ROSCOSMOS (Russian Federal Space Agency)
  • SSAU (State Space Agency of Ukraine)
  • UK Space Agency

ISRO is also part of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), an international governmental forum that coordinates global efforts to reduce man-made and natural space debris by sharing research and identifying debris mitigation options.

Global mitigation measures takes many forms, including preventing the creation of new debris, designing satellites to withstand impacts by small debris, and improving operational procedures such as using orbital regimes with less debris, and predicting and avoiding collisions.

Watch video of the PSLV launch here:

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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