Orbital clutter reaching crisis point

Paul Raven @ 10-05-2011

A grim prognosis from Marshall Kaplan, orbital debris expert at John Hopkins University:

“The proliferation is irreversible. Any cleanup would be too expensive. Given this insight, it is unlikely spacefaring nations are going to do anything significant about cleaning up space,” Kaplan said. “The fact is that we really can’t do anything. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the technology. We don’t have the cooperation. Nobody wants to pay for it. Space debris cleanup is a ‘growth industry,’ but there are no customers. In addition, it is politically untenable.”

[…]

“There is a good chance that we may have to eventually abandon all active satellites in currently used orbits,” Kaplan said. “One possible scenario for the future is that we may phase out this generation of spacecraft while replacing them with a brand-new infrastructure of low-orbiting constellations of small satellites, each of which partially contributes to collecting desired data or making communications links.”

These constellations could be placed below 370 miles (600 km), thus avoiding the debris issue.

“Such a new infrastructure could be developed over the next 20, 30 or 40 years,” Kaplan said. “We should have plenty of time to make the transition, so let’s use it wisely. We all caused this problem … there is no doubt about that. And, nobody will claim somebody else did it.”

Nobody will claim someone else did it? Charming political naivete from Mister Kaplan, there; there’ll be plenty of finger-pointing once the rate of failed launches due to debris collisions increases significantly. I’m guessing China will be on the receiving end of most of it, too.

But there’s an old saying in the English county of Yorkshire: “where there’s muck, there’s brass”. If I was looking for a way to monetise a manned orbital station, making orbital junk-wrangling a big part of the commercial offer would be my first angle; maybe no one is willing to pay yet, but demonstrate an ability to save pricey sats from destruction and folk might think differently.

[ If you’re reading this, Elon Musk, my offer to act as a low-cost ideas-geek in your organisation still stands. 🙂 ]


Space news round-up

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2011

A little flurry of space-related headlines have blown into my RSS Zeitgeist:

Stay tuned for further developments… 🙂


Space race rebooted? Or, y’know, not.

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2011

All this talk of rocketry and path dependency, and now it looks like we’re going to re-run one of the classic (arguably) bloodless megaconflicts of the 20th Century all over again: Russia is working on a clone-job of the US Air Force’s little-known but oft-alluded-to “spaceplane”, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle!

Stepping away from sensationalist overstatement for a moment (hey, us internet hacks have to attract eyeballs somehow, right?), I don’t think this is anywhere near as big a story as it it’s being made out to be. For a start, all we have to go one regarding the Russian project is a statement of intent, and given the state of the Russian economy (and the alleged state of its government), I’m not sure they’re in any position to pour funding and expertise into a space race right now… indeed, I’d have thought China would be a more potent potential player on that particular gameboard.

Secondly, a similar but less severe problem pertains with the United States, namely the same econopolitical instability that’s so globally fashionable right now (“favela chic, darling – everyone‘s doing it!”). I don’t doubt there’s work being done on the X-37B, but I can’t see it being a significant budget draw in an era of domestic financial woes, long drawn-out “liberation” projects in the Middle East, and an internecine state of polarised political pugilism.

Again, among the nation-state players I’d say China looks like a much better bet for significant progress toward the top of the gravity well in the next decade or so. The commercial space outfits may make some strides as well, but given the sort of characters heading those organisations, I suspect any allegience to the U.S. as anything other than a source of expertise and skills will be more a matter of convenince and expedience than of national pride.

Nonetheless (and as I seem to be saying on a pretty much daily basis of late), interesting times ahead.


Commercial deployment for Soviet space relics

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2011

When you’re trying to get your new business off the blocks, keeping costs low is important. When that business is space flight, keeping to technology that has a proven track record is also important. Excalibur Almaz are combining that business wisdom with a bit of large-scale recycling, and are buying up old Soviet space modules and vehicles as part of their bid to grab a slice of the commercial space-truckin’ pie.

As elegant and sleek as the Space Shuttle is, I have an aesthetic affection for the more utilitarian approach to space – possibly born of the knowledge that, once you’re out of the atmosphere, you don’t need things like wings or an aerodynamic body. Indeed, probably the most redeeming feature of Stephen Donaldson’s Gap Cycle space opera series (not so well known as the inexplicably popular and interminable Thomas Covenant bore-fests) was the way his fictional spacecraft were ugly, practical things, built for function rather than form.

I’m also reminded of a number of Stephen Baxter’s novels, where gutsy defiers-of-bureaucracy blast themselves up the gravity well in vehicles so crude they’re little more than an unpressurised metal box bolted on to the top of a giant rocket, and the time-worn undermaintained habitats and vehicles of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix.  Safety and elegance are fine things, but they’re prohibitive obstructions when you’re breaking a new frontier.


SpaceX granted reentry license

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, it’s one small step for commercial space travel: the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has granted SpaceX a reentry license for their Dragon spacecraft. That’s a commercial license for full orbital flight testing, not just sub-orbital bounces.


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