The cosmos, once considered the final frontier, is now becoming crowded with space debris. As we continue to explore and exploit the vast expanse of space, we are leaving behind a trail of orbital debris that poses a significant threat to future space missions.
The issue of space debris became a significant problem in the mid-20th century as space activities escalated. The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 marked the beginning of the space age, and with it, the generation of space debris. The problem escalated with the development of satellite constellations, such as the Iridium constellation in the late 1990s. Since then, space agencies and organizations have been working to address the challenges posed by space debris.
What is space debris?
Space debris, also known as orbital debris or space junk, consists of defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, and fragments from previous space missions, all of which orbit Earth at high speeds. With the increasing number of satellite constellations and space activities, the issue of space debris is more pressing than ever.
In order to mitigate the expansion of orbital debris, the FAA suggests a mandate for the removal of upper stages of commercial launch vehicles and any other elements generated during launch or reentry from orbit within 25 years following their launch. This removal can be achieved through either atmospheric disposal or repositioning to an approved disposal orbit, unfortunately, not all companies are following these guidelines.
The growing problem of space debris is not just an environmental issue but also a safety concern for astronauts and satellites and has led to a theoretical scenario called the “Kessler syndrome”.
What is “Kessler syndrome”?
The Kessler syndrome, also known as the Kessler effect, proposed by American astrophysicist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, is described as a single collision that could set off a chain reaction of multiple collisions, generating much more space debris in Earth’s low Earth orbit (LEO). The primary idea behind the Kessler syndrome is that as the amount of space debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) increases, the likelihood of collisions among existing debris and operational satellites also increases.
The process works like this:
Collisions: As space debris collides with operational satellites or other debris, it generates even more fragments and smaller pieces. These fragments continue to orbit the Earth, posing a higher risk of further collisions.
Chain Reaction: Each collision in low Earth orbit (LEO) has the potential to create a cascade of additional collisions. Over time, this can lead to a dense cloud of debris, making it increasingly difficult and risky for spacecraft to navigate through this region.
Increased Risk: As the amount of space debris continues to grow, the probability of future satellite and debris collisions also increases, making space activities riskier.
Escalating Debris: The self-perpetuating nature of the Kessler syndrome can result in a situation where the amount of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) reaches a critical point, making it nearly impossible for new satellites to operate and increasing the risk to existing ones.
Has space debris hit Earth?
Space debris has indeed re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and sometimes hit the planet’s surface. However, most of it burns up upon re-entry. In some rare cases, debris survives re-entry, causing localized damage. The risk of larger objects causing significant harm is a driving force behind efforts to mitigate space debris.
Is space debris increasing?
Yes, space debris is increasing, primarily due to the proliferation of satellites and space activities. Collisions and breakups of defunct satellites and rocket stages contribute to the growing population of debris in Earth’s orbit. This increase raises concerns about the long-term sustainability of space operations.
How do you detect space debris from space?
Detecting space debris from space is a complex process that involves various technologies, including radar systems and optical sensors. Ground-based radar facilities provide real-time data to satellite operators. In space, dedicated satellites, and sensors, also play a role in tracking and monitoring space debris. These sensors use radar and optical instruments to observe and characterize the objects in Earth’s orbit.
Numerous companies around the world have risen to the challenge, dedicating their resources and expertise to the removal and detection of space debris. These 21 companies are at the forefront of developing cutting-edge technologies and strategies to mitigate the risks associated with space debris, ensuring the continued sustainability of outer space for future generations.
Altius Space Machines, a space robotics and technology company, is actively addressing the issue of space debris. They are developing cooperative servicing interfaces that make satellites easier to identify, repair, upgrade, and dispose of responsibly.
Over 300 DogTags™ have been launched to support end-of-life satellite operations and mitigate space debris. They have also partnered with OneWeb Satellites to implement a low-cost, advanced grappling fixture across the OneWeb constellation. This fixture supports various capture techniques for satellite servicing and disposal, extending the lifetimes of space hardware and avoiding premature decommissioning.
Astroscale, a private orbital debris removal company based in Tokyo, Japan, is actively working on mitigating the growing and hazardous buildup of debris in space. They are developing satellite end-of-life and active debris removal services. One of their key projects is ELSA (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale), which aims to drag satellites that are no longer operating from high altitudes to the planet’s natural incinerator: the oxygen-rich atmosphere at lower Earth orbits.
They are also planning to use a lightweight version of the International Space Station’s robotic arm to remove decades-old space junk from Earth’s orbit in a mission planned for 2026. This mission will target old satellites that have been tumbling in space for decades and have no special features for a removal spacecraft to attach to.
ClearSpace, a Swiss startup company, is leading the way in space debris removal. Their mission, ClearSpace-1, aims to remove a VESPA (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) from orbit. This mission is the first of its kind to remove an existing object from orbit.
ClearSpace is also developing technologies for future missions that will include repairing, refueling, and refurbishing unoperational satellites, in addition to removing derelict objects. Their goal is to make space a safer place for future generations by reducing the risk of collision and clearing the way for the future of space exploration.
Digantara, an Indian space situational awareness company, is developing innovative solutions to tackle the problem of space debris. They have signed a contract with Orbital Astronautics Ltd to fly their SCOT (Space-based space Climate and Object Tracker) payload onboard an ORB-6 satellite platform.
The mission will focus on demonstrating a novel LiDAR-based technology developed by Digantara. This technology will serve as the pilot for their low earth orbit (LEO) constellation providing a space situational awareness service. Digantara’s mission is to build a sustainable near-Earth environment and access to space by providing actionable insights through meaningful collaborations with industry stakeholders.
D-Orbit, a leader in space logistics and transportation, is actively working on space debris mitigation. They have developed the D3 Decommissioning Device, an independent, smart rocket motor optimized for decommissioning maneuvers. Installed on satellites before launch, D3 can be activated from the ground even if the main spacecraft bus is unresponsive to perform a quick, safe, and direct disposal maneuver at end-of-life or in case of a major failure.
D3 is fully compliant with international space debris regulations, enabling operators of constellations to maintain their operational orbits free from uncontrolled satellites, and reducing collision risk. Depending on the configuration, D3 can perform quick re-entry for LEO satellites, re-orbiting to graveyard orbit for MEO and GEO satellites.
ExLabs, also known as Exploration Laboratories, is a Long Beach-based aerospace company that is developing technologies for robotic autonomous orbital debris mitigation. They are working on a vessel that will be about five times larger than any other spacecraft currently on the market.
This vessel, dubbed Arachne, will be used like a “claw game” in space to remove the largest 10% of debris from orbit, including leftover rocket bodies and old satellites. Their long-term goal is to unlock the vast resources of space in support of human sustainability by paving the way for deep spaces missions meant to capture natural resources.
HEO, a space imaging company, is contributing to the mitigation of space debris by visually monitoring satellites and space debris through non-Earth imaging. They provide intelligence on their satellite inspection software platform, HEO Inspect. HEO leases time on partner companies’ imaging satellites and can task those imagers to take pictures in order to characterize a space object.
Their customers include commercial satellite operators and government agencies that want to prevent their spacecraft from colliding with debris objects or keep watch of other hazards. HEO Robotics provides visual inspection services for satellites and space debris for their operators to monitor the condition of their space assets.
Kall Morris Incorporated (KMI) is an orbital debris research and solution development company that is focused on Active Debris Removal (ADR) to keep space clear for all. With proprietary software, exclusive hardware, and critical partnerships, KMI aims to develop a commercially viable system for ADR of legacy assets, which are significant debris objects that are often unprepared, uncontrolled, and potentially unrecognizable.
KMI has developed a system that allows their spacecraft to remain in orbit through multiple debris collections, creating the potential for economic, environmental, and physical benefits in orbit utilizing the previously dangerous debris. They are dedicated to working with organizations, academics, governments, and all motivated people to eliminate orbital debris by delving deeper into the problem and innovating solutions to secure the safety of humankind in space and to better our way of life on Earth.
Launchspace Technologies Corporation is a commercial space services company that is addressing the issue of space debris. They have the unique capability of using space-based sensor satellites to detect and track orbital debris that is smaller than currently possible. Their orbital debris remediation spacecraft removes small orbital debris that can damage or destroy satellites and make spaceflight unsafe.
They are developing a constellation of satellites equipped with sensors into equatorial low-Earth orbit to keep track of other satellites in low-Earth and geostationary orbit in addition to monitoring orbital debris and other threats. Launchspace Technologies plans to establish a second constellation of satellites operating between 600 and 1,200 kilometers to collect pieces of orbital debris large enough to hurt satellites but too small to be tracked with ground-based sensors.
LeoLabs is a company that is propelling the dynamic space era with superior information through their vertically integrated space operations stack, Vertex™. They provide real-time tracking and powerful insights for satellite operators, commercial enterprises, and federal agencies to safely execute operations in space.
Their services include LeoTrack for automated, independent monitoring of satellite fleets, LeoSafe for real-time collision avoidance alerts, LeoLaunch for quickly locating and identifying newly launched payloads, and LeoRisk for comprehensive mission risk assessment. Their global, phased array radar network covers both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, delivering reliable data when needed. They are transforming low Earth orbit through Vertex™ — the world’s first vertically integrated commercial space operations stack.
Obruta Space Solutions, a startup based in Ottawa, Canada, is working to ensure the sustainability of all spacecraft to create a robust off-world economy. They are developing technologies that focus on spacecraft rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking systems. While developing novel space debris removal technology, they came up with a tethered-net removal technology to monitor the debris in space.
The net capture system depends on deployment masses that accelerate to push a net out of a container. This net then inflates while moving toward the target object. Their goal is to make servicing a spacecraft as easy and as commonplace as servicing your car.
ODIN Space, a UK-based company, is revolutionizing the tracking of space debris. Their detectors are sensitive to the smallest pieces of orbital debris that are invisible to existing tracking solutions. Using a network of these detectors, they map the orbital debris environment, providing essential insights into the position, size, speed, trajectory, and number of dangerous objects in both Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO).
Their technology can track sub-centimeter debris, which travels at bullet speeds and poses threats to satellites, space stations, and other on-orbit infrastructure. By understanding how lethal, sub-centimeter debris behaves, they aim to protect space assets, maximize growth, and drive sustainability in space.
Orbit Fab, also known as the “Gas Stations in Space” company, is making significant strides in addressing the issue of space debris. They are supporting ClearSpace’s CLEAR mission to clean up the congested space environment by equipping ClearSpace’s debris removal satellites with refueling capabilities. To refuel in orbit, ClearSpace will integrate Orbit Fab’s RAFTI™ refueling valve into their Active Debris Removal (ADR) satellite design.
This design phase of their CLEAR mission advances key technology building blocks for the development of commercially viable space debris disposal services. Orbit Fab’s RAFTI™ fuelling port is a drop-in replacement for spacecraft fill-and-drain valves to enable refueling in space.
OrbitGuardians, a U.S.-based startup, is a leading commercial provider of Active Debris Removal (ADR) services. Their primary mission is to safeguard space workers, tourists, operating satellites, and the forecasted $3 trillion space economy by actively removing dangerous debris before the Kessler Syndrome becomes reality. They use technologies such as computer vision, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyze, monitor, and remove debris of size smaller than 20 cm from space.
Their services include deorbiting hundreds of objects per launch, deorbiting small, medium, and large objects, on-orbit inspection service, RSO data capture for SDA/SSA catalog, and RSO orbit positioning.
PIAP Space, a daughter company of Łukasiewicz Research Network – Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements, is dedicated to space-related industry activities. They are particularly interested in developing technologies in the areas of Active Debris Removal, Manipulators & End-Effectors, On Orbit Satellite Servicing, Human-Robot Interaction, Vision Systems and mechanisms.
They have developed a robotic arm that will eventually remove space debris to improve the safety of satellites. PIAP Space also offers grippers, torque, and force sensors that assist satellite maintenance and servicing. Their team has delivered seven grippers for security and defense purposes and one gripper prototype for an Active Debris Removal mission.
Share My Space is a company that is dedicated to ensuring the safety and sustainability of space operations. They collect, process, and leverage space situational awareness data to protect critical assets in space. By actively monitoring space debris, satellites, and derelicts, they help operators and space agencies proactively avoid threats and adjust orbital paths. They provide real-time traffic mapping and unparalleled support for all who share the use of orbits. Their mission is to protect this unique and limited resource that is essential for the future of space exploration.
Solstorm, a Norwegian startup, is actively addressing the issue of space debris. They have developed a system called Magbreak, which enables hybrid propulsion systems to deorbit rockets and satellites without the use of external engines or propellants. Their vision is a world without space debris, and they are committed to ensuring long-term sustainability through end-to-end active removal of spent space assets. They are also planning to launch the Nimbus satellite in 2024 to demonstrate commercial waste disposal of space assets.
Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) is a pioneer in the active removal of space debris. They designed and manufactured the Remove Debris satellite platform, which hosted payloads for use in debris removal demonstrations. The Remove Debris mission, launched in 2018, achieved the first-ever in-orbit demonstration of space debris capture and performed four active space debris removal technology demonstrations. These demonstrations tested novel technologies, representative of an operational scenario during a low-cost mission.
The mission successfully performed active space debris removal technology demonstrations including net capture, vision-based navigation system using 2D and 3D LiDAR, harpoon deployment, and drag sail deployment. After a successful mission, Remove Debris burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in December 2021.
Thales Alenia Space is a leader in the field of space debris mitigation. They are developing Start, a fleet of in-orbit service vehicles that will intervene in orbit to capture debris, deorbit end-of-life satellites, and also repair or refuel. Thales Alenia Space is also offering a new on-orbit servicing solution that includes controlled reentry of space debris, robotic manipulation, extending a satellite’s service life, in-orbit refueling, and inspection.
They have been selected by the European Commission to lead the EROSS IOD (European Robotic Orbital Support Services In-Orbit Demonstrator) program, which aims to support sustainability in space by enabling satellite life extension and performance enhancement to reduce space debris. Thales Alenia Space is committed to extending satellite lifetimes while also limiting space debris to enable better management of current and future space assets.
Voyager Space Holdings, a global leader in space exploration, is actively working on the issue of space debris. They are developing technology solutions to prevent further debris creation and manage existing debris. These solutions include converting spent rockets into space stations, relocating or de-orbiting debris, and harvesting valuable metals and other materials.
They are also investing in orbital debris mitigation technologies. One of their interesting endeavors is the Outpost program, which involves building and operating completely commercial space stations out of the spent upper stages of launch vehicles and other space debris.
Vyoma, a pioneering German startup, is focused on space debris monitoring. They have entered into a strategic partnership with Bulgarian cubesat specialist EnduroSat to develop a constellation of pilot satellites aimed at tracking and cataloging space debris in low Earth Orbit (LEO). Vyoma’s goal is to track objects in LEO using a constellation of observation satellites, then use machine learning to automate collision avoidance procedures for clients’ satellites.
They are planning to launch a proprietary space-based monitoring system — it wants to get up close and personal with space junk, monitoring debris from a small constellation of camera-toting satellites. The high frequency of observations allows Vyoma to do very accurate predictions of the trajectories of debris objects. Furthermore, from the images, they can also infer how the objects behave, for instance, if they are tumbling, if they have a uniform rotation, what properties they have, like dimensions, materials, etc.
The issue of space debris is a growing concern that threatens the safety and sustainability of space activities. Companies are actively working on innovative solutions to detect, track, and remove space debris. Their efforts are not only vital for the protection of valuable space assets but also for ensuring the long-term sustainability of space exploration and satellite operations.
As the space industry continues to expand, the work of these companies will become increasingly critical, contributing to a cleaner and safer space environment for future generations.