Rolando Grandi

Earthlings should sleep better

“Earthlings should sleep better, and I definitely will”. So says Elena Adams, DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) systems engineer, summing up the success of the first ever planetary defence mission. The DART spacecraft was launched on 24 November 2021 on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The test took place 6.8 million miles from Earth, with the craft crashing into the Dimorphos asteroid at 15,000 mph, successfully diverting its path. The aim of the mission was to test ways of protecting the Earth and its inhabitants. This iconic, Armageddon-like mission marked the start of a new era and a paradigm shift for the space sector: Space 2.0. It came about after NASA partnered with private space companies SpaceX – which launched the kamikaze spacecraft – and Redwire, the provider of a solar panel system used for the first time in deep space.

The outcome of the test to alter the path of an earth-crossing object will be analysed by the European Space Agency’s Hera mission, which will be launched in 2024. The risk of collisions between space debris is garnering growing attention, particularly in the USA. The Federal Communication Commission has just voted in favour of adopting new orbital debris rules for low-Earth orbit satellites, likely prompted by the thousands of pieces of space junk generated by the anti-satellite tests (ASAT) carried out by Russia in early 2022.

Making space safer, and cleaner

Making Space 2.0 safe is a key challenge for the future of space exploration, since the proliferation of space debris poses increasing risks to space missions. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris are currently orbiting our planet. NASA considers more than 27,000 of these objects to be space junk, while the French aerospace lab ONERA puts the figure at 400,000. It is estimated that there are half a million pieces of debris the size of the coin, plus 100 million smaller fragments that current technologies are unable to detect as yet. This is a crucial issue for Space 2.0 entrepreneurs to tackle: how can the entry of space debris into the atmosphere be anticipated, and what cleaning strategies can be employed?

Solutions are emerging to better identify space junk using more sensitive sensors, thanks to artificial intelligence, as well as data sharing and connectivity. A number of start-ups are positioning themselves to manage end-of-life satellite disposal and clean up space by equipping spacecraft with robotics systems or building more resilient and autonomous satellites. For example, Japanese start-up Astroscale has designed a module for satellite operators that can capture satellites at the end of their life before they become debris. The approach of LeoLabs in the USA and Italy’s D-Orbit, meanwhile, involves the use of space mapping to clean up space. Another US firm, Benchmark Space Systems, recently unveiled a collision avoidance kit designed to help small satellites avoid space debris (and other spacecraft) and to deorbit autonomously.

The aim of planetary defence strategies is to prevent humans going the way of the dinosaurs, which experts think were wiped out after an asteroid crashed into the Earth. This sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood film, but instead of Bruce Willis at the controls, we have visionary entrepreneurs devising strategies and ultra-advanced technologies that are opening up a safer and more fertile terrain for space exploration.

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