Governments, companies are interested in space junk

The US Space Command recently released a proposal aimed at reducing “lumber” orbiting the Earth in space.

Space junk can be a piece of metal that broke off from an orbiting satellite. Or it could be an entire satellite that is no longer powered or controlled by the organization that launched it.

If other countries and companies agree to follow the American proposal, outer space could become much safer and cleaner.

Lloyd Austin is the US Secretary of Defense. He approved the proposal, known as “Principles of Responsible Behavior in Space,” in early March. It is not a legal document; it is a five-point list of so-called “best practice.”

One of the points reads: “avoid working … in a way that could harmfully interfere with the functioning of (another) space object.” Another is “operate space objects through end-of-life disposal in ways that limit … longevity wreckage.”

The other points relate to avoiding collisions or breakups between space objects, not interfering with an organization’s ability to control a space entity, and communicating in advance of a possible collision.

The main concern is that there are too many old items in the room that are no longer used. These items can get in the way of items that are useful.

Government space agencies and private companies are working to create some form of order, especially in the part of space called low Earth orbit. This is where a number of internet satellites launched by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX are currently active. Amazon also plans to launch satellites into this area.

Jack Deasy is vice president of the company Astroscale, which is based in Tokyo, Japan. The company is testing a debris removal device called ELSA. The device connects to space debris and pushes the objects towards the Earth’s atmosphere where they will burn up.

Deasy said the points in the US proposal should be adopted of the industry before something bad happens in orbit.

If something isn’t done soon and something happens in orbit, Deasy said he’s worried the industry will make a quick decision in response to an accident. He said: “That kind of … crisis-driven stuff is not always the best way to make long-term policies, which maintain that ecosystem.”

So far, Astroscale has raised $376 million for its space cleanup program.

One of the investors is the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. He recently posted a message on Twitter saying so trash in space “could become a big problem in the future.”

While Astroscale is developing a system to remove space debris, other companies are working to create devices that can capture old satellites and refuel them. The hope is that the old units can be reactivated so that they can be used for a longer period.

Another company, Neumann Space of Australia, is working on a way to collect old satellites and turn them into fuel for currently active satellites.

The metal can be used to power new satellites, explained Herve Astier. He runs Neumann Space.

“By using the metal that’s already there, it’s a way to move forward in terms of sustainability,” he said.

Neumann plans to launch a test satellite in June.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on a report from Reuters.


Words in this story

lumber– n. unwanted material, waste or debris

principle – n. a rule or idea accepted by many

practice – n. a way of doing something

wreckage – n. something unwanted that fills up or is an obstacle

adopt -v. to put something to use

ecosystem – n. the place where something exists

trash– n. unwanted material or waste; something that is no longer usable

maintain-v. to keep something going for a long time


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