Space exploration has given us so much—from the first images of our precious planet to material evidence that Earth is the only celestial body on which we know intelligent life exists. But the means to monitor space and take us there have also contributed to orbital debris. At Airbus, we believe we have a responsibility to ensure a sustainable space environment.
Mitigating the risk of orbital debris
Today, more than 7,600 tonnes of materials are flying around in low Earth orbit, transforming the space high above the clouds into an immense junk yard. Due to its high speed and volume, orbital debris—consisting of human-generated objects, such as pieces of spacecraft, and parts of rockets and satellites—poses a real safety risk to people and property not only in space but also on Earth. And as space constellations become a reality, there will be an increased need to safely remove end-of-life satellites from orbit.
Airbus is the first company to test in-orbit technologies to clear out space junk and avoid spacecraft collisions. We believe it is in our collective interest to protect the space environment—a natural resource that is vital to daily life, from providing global connectivity and weather forecasting to monitoring climate change.
As the challenge of orbital debris is only expected to grow, Airbus is participating in a consortium aimed at defining a Space Sustainability Rating (SSR). This global rating, a concept developed by the World Economic Forum, will provide a score that represents a mission’s sustainability as it relates to debris mitigation and alignment with international guidelines.
Our approach to sustainable space
Airbus Robotic Telescope
This ground-based test bed provides automated tracking and surveillance of satellites and debris in space. In doing so, it helps prevent satellites and the International Space Station from colliding with debris or each other.
Deployed from the RemoveDEBRIS demonstrator satellite, the harpoon is fired by cold gas generators at its target. The barbed tip ensures a permanent connection. With an accuracy of +/-10 mm, it is the first harpoon of its kind to capture debris in a space environment.
This deployable net from the RemoveDEBRIS demonstrator satellite can target debris up to two metres in diameter and with a mass of up to two tonnes. The net-debris combination subsequently floats away to deorbit and burn up upon atmospheric re-entry.
This robust alternative to GPS services uses 2D cameras and 3D LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology to track in-orbit debris. The state-of-the-art image processing and navigation algorithms, both of which have been tested in orbit on the RemoveDEBRIS demonstrator satellite, work together to identify the exact location of the space debris.
Space traffic management
Airbus is involved in task forces aimed at better managing space traffic flow to minimise the risk of collisions. Organising the sustainable use of outer space is a critical endeavour, particularly as massive constellations increasingly become a reality.