Even though we may not realize it, satellites impact our lives in a major way. Watching TV, using GPS, and looking up the weekly forecast are just a few examples where satellites contribute to our society. These structures orbiting the Earth don’t function forever. Once a satellite malfunctions, runs out of propellant, or completes its mission cycle, it turns into space junk.
Natalie Panek recently talked about this issue in a riveting TED Talk. She describes three orbit paths that satellites typically follow. Low Earth orbits naturally decay and burn up within a couple of decades, and high geostationary orbits allow for satellites to stay for centuries since they remain in a fixed location as the Earth rotates.
The orbit named “the graveyard” is where you’ll find the nonfunctional satellites. Discarded and forgotten satellites are floating around this orbital path, as well as space debris from space junk collisions. This technological graveyard not only puts our space missions at risk, but the operational satellites that contribute so much to society.
Panek raises the following questions: “What if all satellites, regardless of what country they were built in, had to be standardized in some way for recycling, servicing, or active deorbiting? What if there actually were international laws with teeth that enforced end-of-life disposal of satellites instead of moving them out of the way as a temporary solution?”
The TED Talk goes on to suggest some interesting future innovations that could help with this debris problem. Robots to the rescue! Perhaps robotics arms attached to a spacecraft could fix broken satellite components, or refuel propellant tanks. Whatever the future solution might be, we definitely have to schedule in some space cleaning.
Watch the TED Talk in its entirety in the video below.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense