One of NASA’s important but perhaps less “Hollywood” offices has gone in for something of a makeover.

The Orbital Debris Program Office, which operates under NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science program, has approved its first logo, according to the program’s publication, the summer/fall issue of  2017 Orbital Debris Quarterly News, released on 1 August 2017. (The newsletter is required reading for anyone with an interest in the policies, science, or impacts of space debris — and some of it is rather unsettling. Did you know the acceptable risk for human casualty [read: space junk striking a person] must be less than 1 in 10,000? Absolutely striking odds…)

The office has been around since at least 1996, when it published the first issue of Orbital Debris Quarterly News. It focuses modeling debris paths and damage, mitigating the damage of such debris, developing protection from space junk, mitigation policies, and tracking debris reentry.

“We introduce our logo as a digital ambassador representing ODPO and the orbital debris policies that ODPO supports,” write the editors of the quarterly, which is available for electronic subscription here.  The logo depicts the collision of debris and a rocket, as well as “In the background, representative debris and stars surround the Earth as it rotates, with a new day beginning and a bright horizon. This is meant to evoke the promise of debris mitigation and remediation to prevent such collisions and the creation of new debris,” from the Quarterly’s story. 

A missile, fired from a U.S. guided missile destroyer, colliding with a malfunctioning satellite operated by the National Reconnaissance Office in 2008. The satellite’s purpose was classified; however, its operators were never able to bring it on line. U.S. President George W. Bush gave the order to destroy it, ostensibly due to the risk posed by its full tank of hydrazine not breaking up during reentry. Many speculated it was an anti-satellite test response to China’s destruction of a weather satellite the year before.

With an increasing number of smallsats, cubesats, and nanosats on launch manifests for the foreseeable future, and in light of the ever-decreasing cost of launch, the ODPO seems to be expecting many more opportunities to interface with an increasing amount of space entities both public and private, and is looking to build a distinct brand in orer to do so more effectively. Doing so could indicate an intent to work harder to reduce and mitigate debris in LEO — and hopefully an increasingly tough stance on companies and governments who refuse to take responsibility for their orbiting trash. 

Including ours.

Decades of human and uncrewed exploration has left lower Earth orbit a veritable mass of particles, ranging in size from a millimeter or less to entire (and partial) second stage rocket sections and satellites. At least two satellites, two U.S. in origin (one in 1981 and one in 2008) and one Chinese (in 2007), were destroyed by missiles while on orbit as well. The resulting shrapnel can remain on orbit for years (or even decades), posing a constant risk to spacecraft on and moving through LEO.  Additionally, the Kessler syndrome, a theorized scenario where collisions spiral out of control and leave LEO unusable to anyone, is a science fiction dangerously close to science fact. Simply put: without dramatically increased stewardship from entities launching spacecraft, the entire planet could see itself locked out of its own near space orbits.

While the Defense Department’s USSATCOM is responsible for tracking most of the larger (and more secretively classified) space junk, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office focuses on some of the smallest. Pieces just a centimeter across can have devastating effects on spacecraft (let alone EVA suits); in fact, paint chips were found embedded in Space Shuttle orbiter windows on multiple occasions. While regulations require entities operating in space to ensure de-orbit plans are initiated for their satellites within 25 years of the end of operations, a recent study suggests that less than 35% of orbital spacecraft are in compliance with this.

The problem of smaller pieces of space junk is even more pernicious, and harder to solve: while the technology to autonomously service satellites is developing quickly, there are no such flight-ready solutions for the tiny bits of deadly space scrap, which makes up a much higher percentage of space junk than old dead satellites. Schemes for debris mitigation and removal are many and varied, from harpooneering to collecting fragments of space junk for use as fuel for ion thrusters.

Perhaps we’re just waiting for one broadband, wide-scale solution; maybe debris mitigation will take decades to accomplish. Either way, the ODPO has its work cut out in the meantime, and familiarity with its mission is only one piece of the puzzle.

 

David S. Lewis

Lewis has been a writer, journalist, and editor for over a decade; his work has covered politics, policy, tech, and more. He is the co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink Blog, a trade publication which covers advances in commercial space-based industry.

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