The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Pentagon is looking for garbage collectors in space

The nascent efforts to clean up the debris littering space are long overdue, officials say, and follow programs from Europe and other nations

An artist rendering shows how a ClearSpace spacecraft would remove a large piece of debris from space. (ClearSpace)
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The Pentagon wants to clean up space. Well, not all of it. But at least the increasingly polluted region in low Earth orbit, where thousands of bits of debris, spent rocket stages and dead satellites whiz uncontrollably, like so much flotsam.

All of that junk from decades of space travel is not just unseemly but also poses serious risks to all sorts of satellites, including those the Pentagon and intelligence agencies use for national security. But tidying up space is far more difficult than cleaning a freeway or even an ocean. For one, objects in orbit are traveling incredibly fast — about 17,500 mph, or about five miles a second. Some of them are tumbling violently, making them difficult to grab. And it’s expensive to launch a spacecraft capable of sidling up to a piece of space garbage, grabbing it and tugging it out of orbit so it can burn up in the atmosphere.

Still, the Defense Department, as well as other government agencies, has grown convinced that as Earth’s orbit becomes more crowded — and dirty — something needs to be done. Even something as small as a screw acts like a bullet in space and can cause enormous damage.

Pieces of debris have cracked a window on the International Space Station. Last year, a micrometeorite shot right through the station’s robotic arm, leaving a bullet-size hole. The Defense Department does not want that to happen to one of the satellites it uses for missile defense, or spying, or guiding precision munitions with GPS.

Recently, it has launched a program, called Orbital Prime, under the U.S. Space Force that will give companies seed money to develop the technology needed to clean up space. In the first round of the program, companies can win awards of $250,000, with as much as $1.5 million in a second round of funding. The program will culminate with a test demonstration in orbit.

In a video posted online advertising the program, Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, said the Pentagon tracks more than 40,000 objects in space the size of a fist or larger. But he said there are at least 10 times as many smaller objects in orbit that the Pentagon can’t reliably track.

“This debris and associated congestion threaten the long-term sustainability of the space domain,” he said. “It demands action.”

The long-simmering issue again burst into the spotlight late last year after Russia blew up a dead satellite with a missile, creating a massive debris cloud that threatened the people on the International Space Station. The crew — which included two Russian cosmonauts, four Americans and one European astronaut — were forced to board their spacecraft and wait to see if the station got hit and whether they would have to flee for Earth. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “reckless and dangerous” and said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.”

One of the concerns is that the more debris there is in space, the more it could proliferate — debris creating more debris.

Astroscale is one of the companies that intends to participate in the Space Force’s Orbital Prime program. Headquartered in Japan, the company, which has a U.S. office in Denver, is developing a spacecraft it hopes would be able to meet a tumbling object in space, mimic its spin and then grab it using a magnet. It is also working with the Japanese space agency to rendezvous and inspect a spent Japanese rocket stage. A separate mission, to be completed by the space agency, would remove the stage from orbit.

The missions are not easy. On a test this week, the company ran into trouble. Its spacecraft successfully released an object in space, but there was a problem, or an “anomaly,” once it attempted to navigate toward it. “For the safety of the mission we have decided not to proceed with the capture attempt until the anomalies are resolved,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Still, it remained optimistic that a vibrant space economy is dependent on it being clean.

“We want the space economy to grow,” said Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Astroscale U.S. “We want to be an enabler of that. And we want to make sure that we’re doing that long term and that environment is there for future generations.”

The issue also has gotten the attention of the White House. Its Office of Science and Technology Policy recently sought input from space industry leaders on what to do about the problem.

Speaker after speaker said that governments around the world need to fund these efforts to help create a market for companies to operate. They also said that it had become an imperative for the governments largely responsible for the problem in the first place.

“If the U.S. Navy had had a derelict ship sitting in sovereign waters, creating a safety hazard, the U.S. Navy would go out and grab that ship,” said Doug Loverro, a former top Pentagon and NASA space official. “And I’m not sure why we don’t see the same responsibility for government for their derelict ships and their derelict bodies that are in space today.”

Or, as James Lowenthal, a professor of astronomy at Smith College in Massachusetts, put it: “Just as we rely on the government to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, we have to rely on the government to protect the resource and the global commons of low Earth orbit.”

Europe and Britain have also begun to work toward cleaning up debris — a move that’s long overdue, space industry experts say. ClearSpace, a Swiss company, has a contract with the European Space Agency to remove a large piece of debris — a symbol that the issue is finally being addressed. It proposes using a spacecraft with large arms that would grapple the debris like a Venus’ flytrap.

“This is why we’re here. Because we think change is possible,” said Luc Piguet, ClearSpace’s co-founder and chief executive. “And we think we can build a space industry that operates with a different model, where maintenance is just a normal part of it.”

But others say the effort will need to grow and involve international collaboration since most of the debris was generated by the United States, Russia and China. If governments don’t band together to act soon, there will eventually be collisions — or conjunctions, as they’re called — further polluting space. And although the Pentagon tracks objects in space and can warn satellite operators of a high likelihood of a collision, it does not have the authority to force anyone to move their satellite. In the meantime, the number of close calls has climbed. But a miss doesn’t get much attention.

There are “lots of near-misses, and people are able to go: ‘Not a big deal. See, we’re resilient,’ ” said Darren McKnight, a senior technical fellow at LeoLabs, a company that tracks space objects. “No, you were lucky. And the statistics will catch up with you. And you will roll the dice, and they will come up snake eyes one of these times.”

McKnight has worked with a consortium of scientists from all over the world to identify the 50 most dangerous large objects — U.S., Russian and Chinese spent satellites and rocket stages — that have the greatest chance of colliding with other bits of debris.

“They literally are the size of a yellow school bus,” he said. “The only difference is they have no brakes, they have no steering wheel, and they’re going 15,000 miles per hour.” There are 18 spent Russian rocket stages “within a small altitude band, and we call that the bad neighborhood.”

That neighborhood is about 500 miles high, cluttered with large objects that will stay aloft for years, perhaps even many decades — each turn around Earth presenting another chance for a collision. Cleaning it up is a big and difficult job, one that McKnight thinks the United States, Russia and China should collaborate on.

“It will take leadership,” he said. And a willingness to look past grievances on the ground. But ultimately a partnership would be necessary and is in all of the countries’ interest: “Why can’t we cooperatively clean up what we cooperatively messed up?”


Previous versions of this article incorrectly said Smith College is in Michigan. It is in Massachusetts. This post has been corrected.