Ted Muelhaupt of Aerospace Corporation

Ted Muelhaupt with The Aerospace Corporation speaks to reporters on Tuesday, July 16, at the company's El Segundo headquarters in front of a screen showing a model of current space debris. (Photo by David Rosenfeld)

At 2 a.m. on March 27, an analyst for the The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo was awakened by a phone call from a member of the U.S. government.

The government official said a “real-world” event occurred.

Within the milieu of the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, this could only mean one thing: A collision had taken place in outer space and there would be a debris field of space junk the company would need to quickly monitor.

For The Aerospace Corporation, and other companies like it, monitoring space debris is becoming an increasingly important challenge.

The world is experiencing a “new age” of space exploration, with more satellites being launched into orbit by governments and commercial entities — such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance — than ever before, said Ted Muelhaupt, associate principal of the Systems Analysis and Simulation Subdivision at the nonprofit.

The result, Muelhaupt said to a group of reporters Tuesday, July 16, is that more than 20,000 new satellites will launch into orbit in the next five to 10 years. Currently, there are roughly 2,000 satellites in orbit around the globe.

Someone has to keep those satellites safe, especially from space debris.

Responding to the “real-world” event from March, the analyst drove to the office and immediately began modeling the potential outcomes.

It turned out, the collision was intentional: India had launched a rocket, destroying a satellite in low Earth orbit as a test of its capabilities. India called it Mission Shakti.

In its wake, experts have called for establishing “norms of behavior” when it comes to such exercises, because of the risk to other satellites from the scattered space debris.

“The message is don’t do that,” Muelhaupt said, who recounted the tale Tuesday at the company’s headquarters.

There’s also the risk of unintentional collisions.

The Aerospace Corporation and other similar companies monitor the roughly 20,000 pieces of man-made space debris that’s at least 10 centimeters in diameter, about the size of a fist, to prevent them from crashing into satellites. Such collisions can render satellites — providing everything from communications to weather forecasts and military reconnaissance — inoperable.

Space debris is any inactive man-made object, including non-working satellites, rocket parts and former satellites that have broken up.

“There is a background of risk to everything that is put into orbit,” Muelhaupt said. “Every time we bring something back from space, it is pitted (from the impact of space debris).”

There are also millions of pieces of man-made space debris that cannot be tracked. And tens of thousands of pieces  measuring less than 10 centimeters in diameter exist that can be tracked — but not yet cataloged.

But that will soon change in a matter of weeks.

In August, Lockhead Martin plans to deploy the latest version of its so-called “Space Fence,” expected to double the amount of space debris that can be monitored.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about space debris, (such as) that we are going to lose access to space,” Muelhaupt said. “Realistically, that is not a risk.

As companies rush to connect parts of the world through satellites — those areas still unreachable by telecommunications — the perception is the night skies will become overcrowded with satellites, Muelhaupt said.

Recent launches by SpaceX, with dozens of small satellites, plus its Starlink program — to eventually deploy nearly 12,000 satellites in three orbital shells by the mid-2020s — has put this overcrowding perception to the test, Muelhaupt said.

But that perception is wrong, he said.

Outer space, Muelhaupt added, could potentially handle a whole lot more space debris.

“When is it too much?” Muelhaupt asked rhetorically. “We have yet to hit the edge.”

Load comments