The National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan

In July, the White House published the National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan to address growing amounts of orbital debris or “space junk” and the hazards it poses. Orbital debris includes any human-made objects in orbit that no longer serve a useful purpose, such as decommissioned satellites that remain in orbit. This debris poses risks to operational spacecraft because, like anything in orbit, it moves fast (about 10 km per second in Low Earth Orbit). Collisions can cause serious damage.

Orbital debris varies in size from very large—like satellites—to very small. According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, “More than 25,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist.” The office estimates 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm and even more particles between 1 mm and 1 cm.

The National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan outlines 44 actions in 3 broad categories to address the space junk problem: debris mitigation, tracking and characterization of debris, and remediation of debris.

Debris Mitigation

The plan outlines activities to limit the generation of more orbital debris in the future. Namely, they want to promote a better understanding of at what stage of launches debris is created and to design better structures. In particular, investments in developing more effective shields and self-healing materials could mean less debris is created in the future.

Further, the plan aims to limit debris created in the future by researching software that can autonomously design maneuver operations to protect spacecraft in close approach situations.

The plan also includes a mandate to “revisit deorbit guidelines.” In other words: creating rules for what operators must do with satellites after their lifespan. Following the publication of this plan, on September 29, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced new rules “requiring satellite operators in low-Earth orbit to dispose of their satellites within 5 years of completing their missions.” These new rules supplant old 25-year deorbit guidelines.

Tracking and Characterization of Debris

The second main pillar of the plan includes activities to detect, track, and characterize space debris and to develop models that can predict the future location of the debris, as well as active satellites.

One aim of activities in this section is to improve models of space debris. The effort requires better detection methods for space debris and a better understanding of the effects of atmospheric drag and space weather on satellite orbits, a research area we’re involved in here at Nabla Zero Labs.

This section also outlines activities that will translate research on debris tracking and characterization to improved safety in the real-world (or real-space). The plan states, “A collaboration between government and non-government would ensure there is a process for astrodynamics and computation specialists to participate in improving the algorithms used in space command and control applications and government software architectures.” We are excited to pursue such efforts with our Astrodynamics Cloud™.

Remediation of Debris

The final section outlines efforts to reduce the amount of debris in orbit: active debris removal (ADR). ADR endeavors will likely be expensive, so it is necessary to first understand the cost and risks associated with orbital debris. We need to understand the likelihood of orbital debris damaging active spacecraft and estimate the cost in dollars of such events for various stakeholders. Among ADR strategies are moving, removing, and repurposing debris.

Finally, the plan acknowledges space junk is not just a problem for the United States. The plan includes provisions for involving the international community in solving the space debris problem.

For more information

You can read the entire plan here. We also recommend visiting the website of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office for up-to-date information about the space junk problem.