Outer space watchdogs meeting in Riyadh confirm that 128 million pieces of debris lie unchecked around the Earth

Fifty countries meet in Saudi Arabia to find a solution to space debris

PHOTO/SSA vía X - Los directivos y profesionales de 50 naciones se han reunido en Riad para aportar soluciones al peligro que entrañan los escombros espaciales para la supervivencia de satélites y naves espaciales próximos a la Tierra
photo_camera Managers and professionals from 50 nations have gathered in Riyadh to come up with solutions to the danger posed by space debris to the survival of near-Earth satellites and spacecraft - PHOTO/SSA via X

The first Space Debris Congress to be held in the Middle East has brought together in the Saudi Arabian capital 250 senior managers, researchers and professionals from leading space agencies, academic institutions and companies dedicated to monitoring outer space and sounding the alarm to prevent accidents. 

  1. Every year there are more and more satellites and debris in orbit
  2. Reaching agreements and approving investments

From 50 nations on five continents, participants at the Riyadh meeting highlighted the growing problem of the nearly 130 million satellite and rocket debris orbiting the Earth, the urgency of establishing international rules to prevent their proliferation, and the need for cooperative investment to achieve their elimination. 

Speakers used the forum to outline the two immense challenges facing the global space sector. On the one hand, ensuring the continuity of benefits from technologies and applications derived from satellites in outer space. On the other hand, to ensure the sustainability of space activities for present and future generations.  

PHOTO/ESA - Representación artística de basura espacial en órbita terrestre. Por pequeños o grandes que viajan a una velocidad del orden de los 28.160 kilómetros por hora
Artist's rendering of space debris in Earth orbit. However small or large they travel at a speed of around 28,160 kilometres per hour - PHOTO/ESA

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Committee (IADC) - an international forum that globally coordinates the monitoring of natural and man-made debris in outer space - estimates in its January report that, according to its simulations and mathematical models, "the number of debris between 1 millimetre and 1 centimetre in size enveloping our Blue Planet is 128 million".  

The IADC researchers have also quantified that there are 900,000 objects between 1 and 10 centimetres in size, and 34,000 larger than 10 centimetres". The vast majority are found in low Earth orbits below 1,000 kilometres in altitude. This is where a large number of spy, observation and weather satellites of all sizes converge, as well as new constellations such as Elon Musk's Starlink, with thousands of small satellites offering broadband anywhere in the world. 

En primer plano, de derecha a izquierda, el director de la Agencia Espacial de Egipto, Sherif Sedqi; de UNOOSA, Aarti Hola-Maini; de la Agencia Espacial Saudí, Mohamed al-Tamimi; y de la ITU, Doreen Bogdan-Martin - PHOTO/SSA vía X
In the foreground, from right to left, Egypt Space Agency Director Sherif Sedqi, UNOOSA's Aarti Hola-Maini, Saudi Space Agency's Mohamed al-Tamimi and ITU's Doreen Bogdan-Martin - PHOTO/SSA via X

Every year there are more and more satellites and debris in orbit

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, UNOOSA, and the Space Security Office of the European Space Agency (ESA) also keep their own counts. Both organisations differ slightly from the IADC and estimate fragments between 1 millimetre and 1 centimetre in size at 130 million, those between 1 and 10 centimetres at around 1 million and those smaller than 1 millimetre at 36,500. 

But however small or large they are, they all orbit the Earth at a speed of around 28,160 kilometres per hour, far faster than a rifle bullet. This means that the impact of a tiny piece against a satellite, spacecraft or manned orbital complex can cause serious damage, put an expensive satellite out of commission or put the survival of astronauts at risk.

The head of UNOOSA from September 2023, Britain's Aarti Hola-Maini, in her opening speech at the Riyadh Congress, stressed the need for the international space community to "accelerate and unify its efforts in the face of the growing number of satellite launches". In 2012, 138 satellites were launched into orbit, in 2022 there were 2,491... and the numbers are increasing every year. 

La compañía suiza Clear Space está ultimando para la ESA el desarrollo de un satélite. Su misión es atrapar satélites averiados o desechos orbitales y provocar su reentrada y destrucción en las capas altas de la atmósfera - PHOTO/Clear Space
Swiss company Clear Space is finalising the development of a satellite for ESA. Its mission is to trap damaged satellites or orbital debris and cause their re-entry and destruction in the upper atmosphere - PHOTO/Clear Space

The space debris problem is such that one of the conclusions of the Congress is very worrying. IADC researchers have predicted that even in the hypothetical case that there were no more launches and no more satellites were put into orbit, chance collisions between space debris travelling unchecked through space "will lead to the growth of the space debris population". 

Most at risk are the operators of satellites positioned in low orbits, where thousands of observation platforms exist and saturation is a matter of a few years. Their owners are demanding international legislation to ensure the sustainability of their projects. But cleaning up outer space is not cheap. The CEO of Clear Space, Luc Piguet, a Swiss company contracted in 2019 by ESA to remove orbital debris, has pointed out that "catching a single piece will cost hundreds of millions of dollars".

Telescopio de vigilancia espacial construido en Estados Unidos en servicio en la Real Fuerza Aérea Australiana para cubrir y supervisar los objetos que se divisan desde el hemisferio sur - PHOTO/USAF
US-built space surveillance telescope in service with the Royal Australian Air Force to cover and monitor objects sighted from the southern hemisphere - PHOTO/USAF

Reaching agreements and approving investments

Radars and telescopes in the US Space Surveillance Network have identified and consistently track the movements of 27,706 objects larger than 10 centimetres, according to NASA's latest Space Debris Programme report, dated earlier this February. They have documented that most are owned by the United States (12,268), Russia or the former Soviet Union (7,169) and China (5,026), accounting for 88 per cent of the total. 

The Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the American diplomat and engineer Doreen Bogdan-Martin, was one of the authorities who drew the congressmen's attention to what is at stake. She stressed that space agencies, satellite manufacturers and launch service companies "must urgently reach cooperative agreements and approve major investments to clear the orbits of debris and make the space sector as a whole sustainable".

El satélite radar Sentinel-1A de la ESA situado a 700 kilómetros de altura sufrió el 23 de agosto de 2016 el impacto de un diminuto escombro. Afectó una zona de 40 centímetros de diámetro de uno de sus paneles solares - PHOTO/ESA
ESA's Sentinel-1A radar satellite at an altitude of 700 kilometres was struck by a tiny debris on 23 August 2016. It affected a 40-centimetre-diameter area of one of its solar panels - PHOTO/ESA

It should be recalled that the ITU is the UN body in charge of regulating international telecommunications. It also has the role of assigning orbital positions to each of the geostationary satellites that aspire to position themselves 36,000 kilometres from Earth. But at that distance from our planet, space debris is much scarcer than in orbits below 1,000 km. 

This is confirmed by telecommunications engineer Pedro Molinero, who from 1991 to 2004 was the director of the Control Centre of Hispasat, the main Spanish satellite communications company headed by Miguel Ángel Panduro. Responsible for keeping the company's fleet of satellites in their respective geostationary orbits and in proper working order, Molinero confirms that in his 13 years at the head of the control centre "I have never had to move a satellite because of a collision alert due to a hypothetical impact of space debris". 

Las simulaciones y modelos matemáticos indican que hay 128 millones escombros de entre 1 milímetro y 1 centímetro, que en su mayor parte se concentran en orbitas inferiores a mil kilómetros de la Tierra - PHOTO/NASA
Mathematical simulations and models indicate that there are 128 million debris between 1 millimetre and 1 centimetre in size, mostly concentrated in orbits less than 1,000 kilometres from Earth - PHOTO/NASA

"What I have had to do," recalls Pedro Molinero, "is to take precautionary measures when we have been alerted to the passage of meteorites, fragments or some other object within 5 kilometres of one of our satellites". 

The Space Debris Congress held in Riyadh on 11-12 February is further evidence of the Saudi Kingdom's interest in being a major player on the international space scene. The executive director of the Saudi Space Agency, Mohamed al-Tamimi, reiterated his nation's commitment to "ensure the future of the global space economy, combat the proliferation of space debris and contribute to managing the cleanliness of outer space".

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