Since the launch of Sputnik on 4 October 1957, more than 4,600 launches have placed some 6000 satellites into orbit. Currently about 800 satellites are used operationally for science and other applications. Space debris comprise the ever-increasing amount of inactive space hardware in orbit around the Earth as well as fragments of spacecraft that have broken up, exploded or otherwise become abandoned.
The debris field comprises burnt-out launch vehicle upper stages, dead or inactive spacecraft and other objects ranging in size from as big as an automobile to microscopic dust. To avoid damage to operational satellites, ESA uses the DISCOS database to track all space debris.
In 1986, the Director General of ESA created a Space Debris Working Group with the mandate to assess the various issues of space debris. The findings and conclusions are contained in ESA's Report on Space Debris, issued in 1988.
In 1989, the ESA Council passed a resolution on space debris where the Agency's objectives were formulated as:
- minimise the creation of space debris
- reduce the risk for manned space flight
- reduce the risk on ground due to reentry of space objects
- reduce the risk for geostationary satellites
- examine the legal aspects of space debris
- acquire, through own facilities and in cooperation with other space agencies, the data on space debris necessary to assess the extent of the problem and its consequences
The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee
Te Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) is one of the world's leading technical organisations with space debris is. ESA is a founding member of IADC, together with NASA, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, ROSA VIAKOSMOS, and Japan. Subsequent members include ASI (Italy), BNSC (UK), CNES (France), the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), DLR (Germany), ISRO (India) and the National Space Agency of the Ukraine (NSAU).
IADC's primary purpose is to exchange information on space debris research activities, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities and to identify debris mitigation options.
The IADC comprises a Steering Group and four spezialized Working Groups:
- WG 1 Measurements
- WG 2 Environment and database
- WG 3 Protection
- WG 4 Mitigation
European Conference on Space Debris
ESA organizes workshops, tutorials and conferences on space debris. Foremost among these is the European Conference on Space Debris, held every four years.
Space debris have been recognized as a potential problem. Even though the current space debris population may not represent an immediate and excessive danger, the risk of collision with debris is continuously growing. Now is the time to take action to preserve the commercially valuable space environment for future space users.
Current growth reduction measures will lead at best to a stabilization in the growth of the debris population. More efficient measures will be needed including selective deorbiting of spacecraft and rocket stages at completion of their mission.