Collision Course – tracking and de-orbiting space debris

Image of satellites in space

1. Challenge Statement

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (DND/CAF) are looking for viable and cost-effective solutions for tracking and de-orbiting space debris in order to reduce the collision threat for orbiting space systems.

2. Background and Context

While “space debris” technically includes asteroids, comets and meteoroids, this challenge refers specifically to orbit debris, space junk, space waste, space trash, space litter or space garbage, as well as fragments from their disintegration and collisions. Space surveillance networks regularly track about 22,300 debris objects in earth orbits, totaling more than 8,400 tonnes, which includes 1,950 operational satellites. As of January 2019, the total number of debris objects that are estimated by statistical models to be in earth orbits are 34,000 (greater than 10 cm); 900,000 objects (1 cm to 10 cm); and 128 million objects (1 mm to 1 cm)Footnote 1 .

When in Earth orbits, space debris pose a risk of collision with space vehicles, humans, and even with other debris. The hazards posed by debris collisions include erosion to hulls, solar panels and optics; fragmentation leading to rapid increases in the total population of space debris; total loss of a vehicle and/or an asset; and major injury and/or loss of human life. Space debris will grow as the number of human-made objects in Earth orbits increase over time.

There are no operational debris removal capabilities in use, globally, and existing prototypes lack important capabilities and have proven ineffective. For instance, there is a need to capture and deorbit multiple pieces of debris per clean-up effort or the capability becomes extremely expensive; as well, capabilities are needed to track and capture space debris smaller than 10cm or larger than the capturing vehicle (e.g., rocket bodies).

3. Desired Outcomes

The DND/CAF is looking for innovative space debris solutions for one or more of the following:

  • Reliable and robust solutions for tracking space debris below the 10cm diameter size;
  • Concepts, designs or prototypes for deorbiting multiple pieces of debris of any size.

4. Additional Outcomes

Canada adheres to several global treaties on the safe, secure and sustainable use of space and as well as voluntary global norms for responsible behavior by space-faring countriesFootnote 2 . Measures must not be injurious to national security, to the defense of Canada, to the safety of the Canadian Armed Forces or to Canada’s conduct of international relations. Innovation funding will not be granted for any options that are inconsistent with Canada’s international obligations.

Different orbital regimes (Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit, Geosynchronous Orbit, and Highly Elliptical Orbits) are expected to influence the way in which debris is tracked and removed (deorbited), and the length of time to execute the removal task. Innovators are asked to account for their assumptions with respect to the orbital regime within their funding proposals.

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