The growing proliferation of satellites will, one day, create a proliferation of space junk, and believe it or not this has an impact on utility emergency preparedness. The good news is that robots are currently under development that could one day be deployed to make repairs and maybe even retrieve dead satellites so they do not end up abandoned in the ethos.
Why Satellites Become Space Junk
The reason satellites become space junk is because once deployed, operators can never perform any kind if physical maintenance or repairs. Yes, some software diagnoses and fixes can be done remotely, but the physical hardware is completely out of reach. Simply put, when it comes to a satellite, once it’s gone, it’s gone. And even if it performs exceptionally well with no anomalies, a typical satellite has a shelf life of only 15 years.
This is problematic from an emergency preparedness perspective because space junk could occasionally fall to Earth and destroy infrastructure like poles and wires, water towers, and even dams. Although this is unlikely now, what happens 50 years from now when there are thousands of dead satellites floating around the planet?
Robots to the Rescue!
Luckily, I am not the only person paranoid about the future of space junk. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is working on robotic spacecraft technology that will help mitigate the problem.
The project is called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), and the first of the robot craft is due to launch in the early 2020’s. A related initiative – Restore L – involves a robotic mission to relocate dead satellites in the lower part of Earth’s orbit.
These initiatives will help reduce the risk of space junk falling to Earth and causing damage to infrastructure. But in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to consider this possibility…and perhaps even incorporate it as a scenario for an exercise or drill.