Space Junk, Time To Clean The Mass Of Debris Orbiting Earth

From bulky satellite corpses to tiny metal splinters, the Earth is surrounded by a cloud of space debris. But now there are plans for a groundbreaking clean-up.

More than 12,000 trackable items of space debris orbit the Earth
More than 12,000 trackable items of space debris orbit the Earth
Alexander Stirn

UEDEM — Two non-descript containers in this northwest German town help track the dangers of collisions in outer space. The "Space Situational Awareness Center," operated by the German Federal Armed Forces does not, however, protect Germany and the rest of the world from little green men or other space villains with laser guns. The dangers mentioned above are simply made of debris.

More than 20,000 objects, with a diameter of at least 10 centimeters (4 inches), are orbiting earth in uncontrollable circuits. These include broken satellites, burned-out rocket fuel cells, and general debris from collisions or targeted destruction procedures. In addition to that, you have about 750,000 pieces measuring 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) that are not detectable from Earth.

For starters, all of this debris constitutes a major danger to the nearly 1,500 active satellites currently orbiting the planet. The last crash happened in 2009 when a Russian Kosmos satellite collided with a U.S. Iridium satellite. The result was some 10,000 fragments adding to the considerable debris already in place.

"Sixty years of space exploration have led to a lot of "traffic" circulating above the Earth," says Colonel Thomas Spangenberg, military head of operations at Uedem's Space Situational Center. All that traffic also means an increased risk of accidents, especially when there are plenty of rogue "drivers' and no real rules of the highway nor any reliable roadway repair service. All attempts to contain the amount of debris or force it into predictable orbits have failed up until now. Plans to tow away the wreckage and dispose of it somehow have also failed to take off due to the lack of available technology, funding and political will to seriously pursue them.

"During normal traffic accidents on the motorway the police will block off that portion of motorway," says Gerald Braun, civilian head of operations at the Center, which is jointly operated by the German Federal Air Force and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). "But that is impossible up there. It's an active high-speed traffic system, so nothing can be stopped."

Braun and Spangenberg have only one option, namely to prevent the worst from happening.

We're flying blind

Predicting collisions is like poking around in the dark. "At the moment we are dependent on the Americans and their global network, just like the rest of the Western hemisphere," says Spangenberg. At least 30 different radar stations and optical telescopes aid the U.S. in tracking the orbits of an estimated 30,000 objects. Some 18,000 of these satellites and pieces of debris are recorded in a catalogue that anyone can access. The rest is top secret, though some of the confidential materials are shared with Transatlantic partners.

One of the pieces that Americans do not share information about, is the so-called "unknown" object, which is currently worrying officials at the Center since it is scheduled to pass quite close to a German civilian observation satellite within the next two days. "Unknown" is believed to one of these top secret objects, perhaps a spy satellite, a metal splinter or a burned out rocket fuel cell.

"We have no idea what is heading towards us," says Gerald Braun "We have no access to the size of the object nor the data in the catalogue."

But this kind of predicament is supposed to change, as Germany has announced plans to monitor all space junk by themselves in future.

The name of that particular project is Gestra. The DLR and Air Force want to be able to independently track the orbits of satellites and debris between 500 to 1,200 kilometers (310-745 miles) in altitude through the use of an experimental, modular as well as mobile observation radar system located within the containers at Uedem. One of the containers sends radar beams into space while the other container, situated 100 meters (328 feet) apart from one another, receives the reflected signals and analyzes them.

Gestra is supposed to be up and running within the next year, though the Center will also have to learn how to process the received data. Tens of thousands of warnings of potential collisions, based on information from the Center's and U.S. authorities, are already collated at the German site each year. The information is filtered, analyzed and lands, if the danger is considerable, in room 109, the operational heart of the Center. Critical situations arise once or twice a month: if a collision is imminent, the satellite operator is contacted and kindly asked to perform evasive maneuvers.

"In the future, this data will be analyzed in a fully automated process," says Braun. "Otherwise it will become impossible to tackle the task."

It's not clear if Gestra's resolution capacity will be even stronger than the Americans', who can identify objects with a diameter of 10 centimeters. But even if Gestra could manage to locate objects as small as five centimeters, it would not solve all problems: even an object of only three centimeters can cause devastating damage. "As opposed to aviation space, of which we have an absolute map at any given time, the space surrounding Earth is unchartered. And we never will be able to charter it anyway," says Braun. "In the end, we are flying blind."

All of this is a warning of the importance of avoiding the creation of additional space junk. Only a few countries, such as France for example, have legislation in place to support the prevention of creating space debris. Even Germany is behind the times. Instead, such vague policy suggestions have been made as lowering satellite orbits at the end of their lives to 520 kilometers. The Earth's atmosphere is still dense enough at that height that the satellite is slowed down and, over a period of 25 years, slowly incinerates and burn up. In addition to that, pressure tanks should be bled dry, batteries discharged and fuel cells dried up completely. In short, anything explosive needs to be stabilized prior to descent.

But junk prevention costs money and very few satellite operators want to pay for that. "We need politicians to enforce guidelines," says Holger Krag, head of the Bureau for Space Debris with the European Space Agency in Darmstadt. "But the responsible space exploration committee of the United Nations has not passed a law in decades because various states block each other."

So, there is only refuse collection. Ideas and initiatives for getting rid of space junk are based on this simple principle. The European Union has allocated 15 million euros for a "Remove Debris' project, which aims to prove that defective satellites can be tamed by utilizing nets or harpoons. The captured satellite could then be dragged to a lower orbit to incinerate.

But such innovations are futile on their own, says DLR manager Braun. "It is essential that we have a picture of our own about what is going on up in space."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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