Iridium and an Orbital Debris Perspective

May 4, 2018

by Scott Tibbitts, Senior Business Advisor, Roccor

It was the early 90’s and the company was called “The Calling Corporation.” Jim Stewart, a Professor of Aerospace Science at the University of Colorado was a consultant for them. He called and said he was working on something big, and he couldn’t tell us the details quite yet. He came over to Starsys and presented a thin, floppy business card that didn’t convey much gravitas, but we were just getting started as a company and we were talking to everyone that knocked on our door.

Jim explained that a huge constellation of satellites was in the works. It was being funded by some big, unnamed corporation, and the objective was to provide global cellular communication. This was long before Blackberries, iPhones and Razors. Cell phones were blocky and you needed to pull out an antenna when you made a call. Jims concept was audacious, but hardly believable. Who would ever need a cell phone in a developing country? But we continued the conversation with Jim, then with Lockheed, then with a company called Iridium, strangely named for the number of satellites to orbit the earth, that were equivalent to the number of electrons orbiting said element. As a result we had more than a thousand pieces of hardware flown on scores of Iridium spacecraft. It was a defining moment in our company’s history.

At the time, space was infinite. The idea that those thousands of pieces of our space hardware being an environmental concern was not in ours or anyone’s thinking. Similar to the 50’s and 60’s when families would toss their soda cans out the window while driving across the country without thinking twice. After all, with scads of endless, unpopulated land, time would certainly take care of all that trash one way or another.

Now that thinking seems absurd. It is as ethically inappropriate to throw a soda can out the window driving through the plains of Nebraska, as it would be to dine and dash from a road side diner.

Similarly, our thinking about space junk being something that will take care of itself is radically changing. In 2009 an out of control Cosmos satellite slammed into one of those Iridium spacecraft we helped build, and now all that hardware we were so proud to have made, are thousands of projectiles that could take out a critical spacecraft, the International Space Station, or an astronaut.

It is humbling to recognize that our innocent arrogance a couple of decades back that led to us thinking that the space hardware we were sending up there couldn’t possibly be an environmental concern, has come back to haunt us. As with other technological inflection points, where something benign becomes the threatening at as it becomes ubiquitous, the advent and deployment of space constellations similarly has crossed that threshold. When you do the math, an occasional spacecraft launched to space every couple of months, or a wrench lost by Gemini astronaut on a spacewalk is truly an insignificant risk to earth.

But that nonchalance to the dangers of space junk carried beyond the point that we began launching hundreds of spacecraft at a time into space. It is now a Big Problem, and not a simple one to fix. Lady Bird Johnson’s Keep America Beautiful program had people stopping along the road and picking up litter to put things right again. Cleaning up space to rid it of the junk that we have sent up in the past is a monumental task.

But making sure we don’t contribute to the flotsam of jetsam of space junk is something else altogether. It is a simple technological solution, requiring only the addition of inexpensive drogue structures that deploy when the spacecraft’s job is done…making sure that the minute atmospheric drag of near space, brings our hardware back to earth in months rather than decades.

We may need to let time do the job of cleaning up what we’ve already sent to space, but we have the technology to make sure that future spacecraft don’t add to the problem.