Earthlings can now sleep soundly. These words from Elena Adams, engineer of the DART mission – Double Asteroid Redirection Test – alone sum up the success of the first planetary defense mission in history, launched on November 24, 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket. At 11,000 km from Earth, this NASA mission managed to deflect an asteroid, Dimorphos, from its trajectory at over 22,000 km/h. The goal? Test the means of protecting the Earth and humanity. This iconic mission, with the false air of Armageddon, marks the beginning of a new era and a paradigm shift for the space sector 2.0. It is the result of NASA cooperation with private space companies, SpaceX, which launched the kamikaze spacecraft, and Redwire, which notably provided roll-up solar panels used for the first time in deep space.
The impacts of this deflection test of a near-Earth object – likely to cross the trajectory of the Earth – will be analyzed by the European Space Agency’s Hera mission, whose launch is scheduled for 2024. Risks of collision of orbital debris are receiving increasing attention, particularly from the United States. The Federal Communication Commission has just voted in favor of the adoption of new rules to manage space debris in low orbit. The thousands of pieces of debris generated by the anti-satellite ballistic tests (ASAT) carried out by Russia in early 2022 were undoubtedly not neutral in this important adoption.
Make space safer, cleaner
Making space 2.0 safe is a major challenge for the future of space exploration. Because with the proliferation of space debris, the risks of space missions would increase significantly. Hundreds of thousands of space debris are currently circulating around the Earth. More than 27,000 objects in orbit are currently considered space debris by NASA, 400,000 according to Onera, the French aerospace research center. It is estimated that there are half a million pieces of debris the size of a coin and more than 100 million pieces of even smaller pieces that current technologies cannot yet detect. A crucial issue taken up by space entrepreneurs. 2.0 to anticipate the entry of space debris into the atmosphere and develop clean-up strategies.
Solutions are emerging to better identify debris through more accurate sensors, through Artificial Intelligence, data sharing and connectivity. To manage the end of life of satellites and clean up space, many start-ups are positioning themselves to equip space assets with robotic systems or build more resilient and autonomous satellites. The Japanese start-up Astroscale has thus designed a module, intended for satellite operators, capable of capturing end-of-life satellites before they become debris. LeoLabs or the Italian company D-Orbit aim to map the space to clean it. More and more solutions are emerging, like that of Benchmark Space Systems which has just unveiled an anti-collision kit designed to help small satellites avoid debris and other spacecraft and de-orbit themselves.
Planetary defense strategies aim to prevent Earthlings from knowing the fate of the dinosaurs, whose disappearance was, according to experts, caused by the impact of an asteroid. Strategies that look like Hollywood movies, but without Bruce Willis in the driver’s seat, made possible by visionary entrepreneurs and state-of-the-art technologies that open up safer and more fertile ground for space exploration.
Episode 5 | November 2022
By Rolando GrandiCFA, Manager of Echiquier Space, La Financière de l’Echiquier (LFDE)
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