Visualization of space debris orbiting the Earth. Photo: European Space Agency

The newly formed US Space Force recently launched its Orbital Prime project, which aims to develop technologies to remove orbital debris, refuel and repair satellites, and develop other space technologies for on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (OSAM).

The program is run by SpaceWERX, the space-focused branch of the US Air Force’s technology incubator AFWERX. In 2020, AFWERX initiated its Agility Prime project, which aims to partner with the emerging electric vertical take-off and land (eVTOL) commercial industry to field a new class of air mobility vehicles by 2023.

Orbital Prime follows a similar commercialized approach as Agility Prime, as it aims to partner government and private efforts to develop OSAM technologies by awarding Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contracts.

The project aims to launch an in-space demonstrator by 2025. Proposed concepts involve deflecting space debris with magnetic fields, de-orbiting dead satellites and recycling their materials for use in in-space manufacturing.

Space debris presents a significant danger to satellites and manned spacecraft. Rocket parts from decades of space exploration, defunct satellites and their fragments, and micrometeors travel at 25,265 kilometers per hour, which can cause significant damage to satellites or space stations in the event of a collision. That said, even minuscule debris can become lethal bullets to spacecraft.

These dangers were manifested in June 2021 when space debris hit the International Space Station’s (ISS) robotic arm, punching a hole through its arm boom and thermal blanket. Despite the damage, the arm remained operational.

Military satellites are also vulnerable to space debris, threatening potential major capability losses in terms of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, targeting, communications and even missile defense. The US’ Orbital Prime project thus aims to create a safer operating environment for America’s military satellites.

Hundreds of millions of pieces of space junk orbit the Earth daily, from chips of old rocket paint, to shards of solar panels, and entire dead satellites. This cloud of high-tech detritus whirls around the planet at about 17,500 miles per hour. Credit: MIT

The threat of space debris could be aggravated by the increasing militarization of space, seen in the rising proliferation of dual-use satellites and anti-satellite weapons tests. Satellite proliferation for both military and civilian purposes is also aggravating the space debris problem by increasing the number of satellites that can fail and spin out of control.

Raising that risk, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a long-term goal of deploying 42,000 Starlink satellites for global satellite-linked internet. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites alone are involved in about 1,600 close encounters between two spacecraft every week, representing about 50 % of all such incidents.

These satellites will also serve as a key node for military communications and targeting hypersonic weapons once upgraded with 6G laser communications.

China has demonstrated that such laser technology can enable satellites to communicate with hypersonic weapons by penetrating the layer of plasma gas that forms around them during hypersonic flight. This layer of plasma gas causes a communications blackout between hypersonic weapons and their control stations, which can reduce their accuracy.

These increase the chances of satellites failing prematurely and make them inviting targets for anti-satellite weapons. Major space powers such as China, Russia, and the US are fielding kinetic hard-kill anti-satellite weapons that can produce huge amounts of space debris.

China tested an anti-satellite missile in 2007, making it the third country after the US and Russia to have previously destroyed a satellite in such a test. The test destroyed a dead-weather satellite circling the globe with an altitude of 805 kilometers.

That altitude is significantly more than that of US spy satellites, which indicates that China’s test was a thinly veiled warning to the US. The remnants of destroyed satellites can stay in orbit for decades, posing a threat to other satellites and spacecraft.

Russia last year tested its own anti-satellite missile, destroying a defunct Cosmos-1408 satellite that was part of Russia’s space-based electronic intelligence system. The US Space Command reported that Russia’s destructive anti-satellite test generated 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and is likely to have generated thousands of even smaller fragments.

This debris field is expected to grow over the years, magnifying the already serious threat it poses.

The dependence of today’s militaries on satellites has normalized the proliferation of destructive anti-satellite weapons. And major space powers are unlikely to cede any military advantage to treaties such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which attempt to set norms on the use of outer space and prevent its militarization.