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Space Junk

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August 02, 2023

Why in news?

Recently, ISRO’s rocket debris was found washing the shores of beach of Jurian Bay in Western Australia.

How space junks are produced?

  • Space junk refers to the dead and unwanted craft left behind in the finite space of Earth orbit for decades.
  • Sources - Unoperational / Expired / Exploded satellites, rocket parts or spacecraft
  • Anti-satellite tests that incapacitates or destroys satellites for strategic or tactical purposes (like Mission Shakti conducted by DRDO, China’s 2007 ASAT test,etc.)
  • Rare collision between two spacecrafts
  • Mega-constellations of satellites planned by companies such as SpaceX ‘sStarlink project.

What is the current issue?

  • A large object was found on the shores of Western Australia has been confirmed to be the debris of an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rocket.
  • ISRO has agreed with the assessment, saying the debris could be from one of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rockets.
  • The object was most likely an unburnt part of the PSLV rocket that launched a navigation satellite for the IRNSS constellation.
  • Since that satellite was launched in the southward direction, it is possible that one of the parts of the rocket did not burn completely while dropping back into the atmosphere.
  • This could have fell into the ocean which later have been swept towards Australian shore.
  • The future course of action will be taken after considering obligations under United Nations Space Treaties.

What are the regulations available to deal with space junk?

  • Outer Space treaty, 1967- India is a signatory to this treaty which tells that States shall be liable for the damage caused by their space objects.
  • Liability Convention, 1972- It is the convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.
  • It deals with
    • Damage caused by space objects to other space assets
    • Damage caused by falling objects on earth.
  • It makes the launching country “absolutely liable” to pay compensation for any damage caused by its space object on the earth or to a flight in air.
  • The country where the junk falls can stake a claim for compensation if it has been damaged by the falling object.
  • International Space Law points that if a satellite becomes dysfunctional, then the satellite should deorbit and its re-entry into the earth should be carried.

With the provision of Liability Convention, Canada sought damages from the then Soviet Union, for a satellite with radioactive substance that fell into an uninhabited region in its northern territory in 1978.

Steps taken to deal with Space Junk

  • Orbital Debris Program Office- It was set up by NASA which issued the world’s first set of debris-mitigation guidelines in 1995.
  • ClearSpace-1- It is European Space Agency mission which aims to demonstrate technologies for rendezvous, capture, and deorbit for end-of-life satellites to builds the path for space junk remediation.
  • Spinnaker3 Drag sail- Researchers from Purdue University are test-launching a first-of-its-kind sail to low-earth orbit, in an effort to clean up space debris.
  • Astroscale-  It is a Japanese startup which launched a satellite that retrieves used satellites and other space junk
  • NETRA Project- It was initiated by ISRO in 2020 which is an early warning system to protect the satellites from space debris and other hazards of Space.
  • REMOVE Debris- It is a space mission that was launched to demonstrate various space debris removal technologies like net capture, harpoon capture, vision based navigation etc.,

What lies ahead?

  • Reliable data- The collision risk in the space can be tracked effectively with the reliable data.
  • Improve technology- There is a need to improve technology in tracking models to increase the accuracy.
  • Better coordination- With increasing number of active satellitesnew approaches including automation and established “rights of way” may be necessary.
  • Minimize debris growth- It can be achieved through a combination of regulation, voluntary actions, and international agreements.
  • Debris mitigation and removal- Passive deorbiting debris and active deorbiting debris requires proper mitigation mechanism.
  • Update Outer Space Treaty 1967- It grants countries permanent property rights to their objects in space complicating the efforts to clean up debris.

 

References

  1. Indian Express| Explained ISRO debris in Australia
  2. Indian Express| Mysterious object washed up the shores

 

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