Man-made debris orbiting the earth

Aerospace America: Active Debris Removal—First, Do No Harm

Picture this: It’s a few years from now.

An obsolete satellite tumbles through low-Earth orbit end-over-end at 28,000 kilometers per hour. An autonomous active debris removal (ADR) tug sets up a rendezvous and begins matching the spin rate. At the right moment, it captures the tumbling satellite. Once it has gained complete control, the ADR tug slows the satellite to lower its altitude and releases it to burn up in the atmosphere. 

That’s an ideal scenario, writes Kerry Buckley, vice president, Air & Space Forces, MITRE National Security Sector, in her recent op-ed.

In the worst case, the ADR tug collides with the satellite and creates a 15-kilometer-wide debris field that not only closes off a valuable orbit for decades but accelerates the Kessler Syndrome of cascading collisions, wiping out numerous communications, surveillance, and scientific satellites.  

These days, there’s a lot of buzz about ADR, and I can appreciate why. ADR has the potential to help solve a massive problem and be very lucrative in the process. Unfortunately, the challenges of ADR are probably harder than many people realize, and the ramifications of failure are also likely higher than most suspect. So, before any demonstrations in space, companies on the cutting edge of ADR need to borrow from the Hippocratic oath and “first, do no harm."

Read the full article on Aerospace America.