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When AMATEUR astronomer John Flannery first became interested in this hobby as a child, outer space was a much cleaner place than it was in 2021.

Thanks to human activity, there are now hundreds of thousands of man-made objects, from satellites – some “alive” and others “dead” – down to tiny fragments of obsolete equipment that was last floating around in low earth orbit.

That means the incidence of non-existent “space junk” has been increasing since the late 1970s and At least sevenfold in the early 1980s.

And like the man-made pollution here on the ground, experts say that without corrective action from organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA), debris in near-earth orbit will add to human endeavors in space Difficulties will arise, and possibly also on the ground.

ESA plans to launch the world’s first cleanup mission in 2025 old space technology.

“It’s certainly a big problem,” says Flannery from Dublin, a member of the Irish Astronomical Society.

One problem is the effects of light pollution on astrophotography and observation in general.

“The images are regularly traversed by light trails caused by satellites crossing each other,” says Flannery.

Here he is speaking from recent experience. Earlier this month, Flannery and some of his colleagues observed the Perseid meteor shower in Glendalough, County Wicklow.

A picture of the Perseid meteor shower over Wexford earlier this month

Source: Michael T. Martin

The Perseids, which occur every year and are visible to the naked eye, are considered to be one of the clearest and most reliable meteor showers.

During their observations, a commercial Starlink satellite popped up – part of an Internet communications network operated by Tesla’s SpaceX space company. Chef Elon Musk was developed – in the sky.

Amateur astronomy is an unusual occupation, says Flannery, because there is a lot of “pro-am collaboration” between hobbyists and scientists.

“Professional astronomers could rely on one focus on certain aspect of the study. Most amateurs make their own agenda, ”he explains.

That means they are sometimes well placed to make important discoveries. Take the case of Waterford-based amateur astronomer Keith Geary, who made an important contribution to the field through his own work on August 8th of this year Repeated about every 25 to 40 years, “says Flannery.

” It last erupted in 2006. And this discovery prompted a number of observatories to monitor this particular star because it is so rare to see a star in what is called an “eruption”; a very important stage in the development of the star. ”

The impact of man-made pollution on this type of work is an issue, but Flannery says the“ real problem lies with the professional community ”.

He explains: “Professional observatories are doing scientific research and suddenly their images are being destroyed by satellite strips that cross the field of view of their telescopic cameras.

The increase in man-made space objects is a more or less direct consequence of the rise of the private space industry.

The Vera Rubin Observatory currently under construction in Chile

Source: Wil O’Mullane

There are a number of key milestones in this new space race, but many point to the first term of US President Barack Obama as its origins.

In 2011, the Obama killed Government sponsored NASA’s space shuttle program and Project Constellation, which aimed to bring astronauts back to the moon.

Instead, the US would rely on commercially developed spacecraft, which is the field for Musk’s SpaceX, for future missions and for defense companies like Boeing.

Since then, an ecosystem of private space companies has developed, many of which focused on launching commercial communications satellites.

And from a situation in 2011 when, according to the bureau of the United Nations for Space Affairs only 129 objects were launched, in 2020 alone over 1,200 satellites entered orbit.

While private spaceb Efforts are exciting and have opened up new possibilities, says Flannery, the drawbacks are clear.

SpaceX’s Starlink network alone could potentially have nearly 30,000 satellites once fully operational, he explains.

Overall, According to Flannery, some believe that the number of living and dead satellites in space could increase from over 7,000 in 2021 to 100,000 in 2030.

Aside from light pollution, such unregulated proliferation of objects could drive manned spaceflight face very real challenges.

For one, there are no clear, internationally agreed rules of what happens to a satellite when it reaches the end of its life cycle or is taken out of service, said Dr.

All of these dead objects floating around up there create the potential for collisions. Collisions mean debris and debris in space – where even a stain of paint can cause great damage to manned vehicles – poses a significant risk to astronauts and equipment.

On the tasks of Dr. It is up to Merz and ESA to avoid collisions from the outset.

“In addition to our interplanetary and scientific missions, we mainly do earth observation in low earth orbit. We regularly have to fly evasive maneuvers there. ”

While this type of maneuver has been a feature of space travel since the 1990s, Dr. Merz, that the topic is “getting bigger and bigger”.

He explains: “There were some big and small events in which debris was generated over and over again.

” So we had the Chinese anti-satellite test [2007] which produced more than 2,000 fragments large enough to be tracked regularly. ”

In 2009 there was also a serious collision between two Russian objects; a commercial communications satellite called the Iridium 33 satellite; and a defunct Cosmos military satellite.

Since then, Dr. Merz, operators and space agencies have started to take the issue more seriously.

But their efforts are hampered by the fact that private space travel is currently a bit of a Wild West in terms of regulation, he explains.

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“These states also have a duty to monitor what is going on in their country. But they do it a little to their liking, “he adds.

If an incident involving two satellites causes damage to the earth, the law is clear and one state can sue the other.

” Even if If you have commercials, those commercials can only go to their own government and ask them to sue the government for compensation. It always goes through the states, ”he explains. Merz. “But space travel is getting busier and busier, it could become a real case at some point.”

The other pillar of ESA’s work on space debris is actually getting rid of the debris that has accumulated in orbit.

Again, the work is more speculative than anything else – not a single piece of rubble has ever actually been cleaned up.

Some operators will use the spacecraft’s last fuel to get into a so-called “cemetery orbit” off the busier routes around the planet while others drive the object towards Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere.

ESA hopes to change this with the world’s first mission to remove debris from orbit.

The project, a public private partnership with a Swiss start-up called ClearSpace, to be launched in 2025.

“We see debris removal as a kind of mixed commercial approach,” says Dr. Merz, because it’s about “rendezvous, docking and a lot of new technology that should also be of interest for satellite maintenance.

“ So we think there will be a commercial market there, for refueling and repair missions, for example. “

The hope, he says, is that the private sector can learn” something for the future that it can then market “.

Overall, according to Dr. Merz has reached its limits in terms of tightening the rules and preventing the accumulation of space debris in the current regulatory context.

For John Flannery, commercial interest in space is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, there is an increase of space tourism has renewed public interest in space.

“It really caught the imagination,” he says, “because people kind of feel, my goodness, even I have a chance to get there. I don’t have to be a Top Gun character or anything. ”

But with growing commercial interest – including plans to launch billboards aboard a SpaceX shuttle in the near future – Flannery believes the danger of that space is treated by humans, treated the planet itself, should be obvious.

“Heaven is just as much one of the wonders of the world as anything else. Really, it robs us of our heritage – because it is only in the last 50 years that we have started to pollute it. But society evolved through its dependence on heaven. ”

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Man-made “space junk” is already making it harder to explore the final frontier