Launches: Orbital debris studies will receive NASA funding

Simulation of orbital debris around the Earth demonstrating the population of objects in the geosynchronous region. Image via NASA/Orbital Debris Program Office.

3 prizes for studies of orbital debris

NASA said on September 13, 2022 that it had selected three research proposals from university teams for funding over the coming year:

… Analyze the economic, social and political issues associated with the sustainability of space.

And space sustainability seems to be NASA jargon for an area of ​​near-Earth space – low Earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit and beyond – now occupied by orbital debris. In other words, near-Earth space is not sustainable until we get rid of the debris, which consists of:

…man-made objects orbiting the Earth that no longer serve a purpose, including mission-related and fragmentation debris, non-functioning spacecraft, and derelict rocket stages.

Studies have long shown that debris in Earth orbit can lead to a cascading effect, sometimes referred to as Kessler syndrome, first suggested in 1978 by Donald J. Kessler while working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Utah. Texas. Kessler pointed out that collisions between objects in low Earth orbit would create more space junk – a cascade of debris – whereby each collision increases the likelihood of further away crashes. In 2009, following his near-Earth environment modeling efforts, Kessler wrote that the debris environment was already “unstable” and that:

…Any attempt to create a small debris environment without growth by removing past debris sources will likely fail because fragments from future collisions will be generated faster than atmospheric drag will remove them.

NASA in search of new ideas and technologies

Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, as the statement does not account for advanced debris removal technologies. NASA said it:

…Takes the threat of orbital debris seriously because such objects can endanger spacecraft, compromise access to space, and impede the development of an economy in low Earth orbit, including commercial participation. These new grants will fund research that supports the agency’s commitment to solving the problem.

She indicated that a group of experts had evaluated and selected the following three proposals:

– “Adaptive Space Governance and Decision-Support using Source-Sink Evolutionary Environmental Models”, presented by Richard Linares and Danielle Wood from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Moriba Jah from the University of Texas-Austin.
– “An Integrated Assessment Model for Satellite Constellations and Orbital Debris”, presented by Akhil Rao from Middlebury College, Daniel Kaffine from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation.
– “Communication and space debris: connection with knowledge and public identities”, presented by Patrice Kohl, Sergio Alvarez and Philip Metzger from the University of Central Florida.

And NASA said its Orbital Debris program will make the teams’ results publicly available on the agency’s website when they become available.

Conclusion: NASA said on September 13, 2022 that it intends to fund three academic research proposals over the coming year, on the issue of orbital debris.

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