While India as a whole and its space research organization (ISRO) in particular are celebrating the record-breaking launch of 100+ satellites in one go, at least one influential person isn’t too impressed and has revealed the hidden dangers of such missions.
G. Madhavan Nair, the former chairman of the country’s premier space body, is of the opinion that ISRO’s latest Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) mission has some hidden dangers to its own space assets. ISRO launch over 100 nano and micro satellites into space. Nair pointed out that there are so many of these objects that have been placed in the same region in space as our Earth observation satellites or will be placed in the future and that’s where the problem is.
According to Nair, these nano-satellites have a short useful life after which they become junk that will keep floating in space for years in the same orbit with chances of colliding with ISRO’s operational satellites sharing the same space. This space junk are potential source of damage to us and they could endanger our own satellites.
He cautioned that ISRO should carefully weigh a few million dollars of commercial gain from launching foreign nano-satellites into 500-km orbits against the potential harm to the present and future Earth observation satellites close to their lanes.
He also noted that in case of a future collision between the debris from any of these nano-satellites and a working satellite belonging to another country, India will have to pay for the damages.
“Therefore, I do not know if we should do it,” he said.
Nair believes that these short-lived nano-satellites should be put in much lower orbits and not alongside other major operational satellites that provide us with vital science information. He said that if these satellites are placed in lower orbits, the junk that is left over after the operational life will descend to Earth due to atmospheric drag and burn up thereby posing no problem to other working satellites.
Nair isn’t the only person concerned about space junk as his sentiments have been echoed by space debris experts in different forums prior to Nair’s statements.
At a recent International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, Hugh Lewis, a leading space debris expert from the University of Southampton, said that since 2005, CubeSats have been involved in more than 360,000 close encounters, “many of these in Sun-synchronous orbits that are popular with remote sensing and Earth science satellites”.
Lewis had warned that if CubeSats continue to be launched into long-lived orbits without any means of disposing them of, “they will contribute to the growing space debris hazard”.
In 2014, the International Space Station had to move three times to avoid lethal chunks of space debris and, only a month ago, European Space Agency had reported that its Swarm-B satellite had a miraculous escape from space debris that came as close as 361 metres.
Experts predict that satellites — just like drones — are increasingly coming within reach of ordinary people. As the cost of getting them in orbit plummets, the risks of collisions in space “will grow,” says a recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences.