Others · June 26, 2024

Job title of the future: Space debris engineer

Stijn Lemmens has a cleanup job like few others. A senior space debris mitigation analyst at the European Space Agency (ESA), Lemmens works on counteracting space pollution by collaborating with spacecraft designers and the wider industry to create missions less likely to clutter the orbital environment. 

Although significant attention has been devoted to launching spacecraft into space, the idea of what to do with their remains has been largely ignored. Many previous missions did not have an exit strategy. Instead of being pushed into orbits where they could reenter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, satellites were simply left in orbit at the ends of their lives, creating debris that must be monitored and, if possible, maneuvered around to avoid a collision. “For the last 60 years, we’ve been using [space] as if it were an infinite resource,” Lemmens says. “But particularly in the last 10 years, it has become rather clear that this is not the case.” 

Engineering the ins and outs: Step one in reducing orbital clutter—or, colloquially, space trash—is designing spacecraft that safely leave space when their missions are complete. “I thought naïvely, as a student, ‘How hard can that be?’” says Lemmens. The answer turned out to be more complicated than he expected. 

At ESA, he works with scientists and engineers on specific missions to devise good approaches. Some incorporate propulsion that works reliably even decades after launch; others involve designing systems that can move spacecraft to keep them from colliding with other satellites and with space debris. They also work on plans to get the remains through the atmosphere without large risks to aviation and infrastructure.

Standardizing space: Earth’s atmosphere exerts a drag on satellites that will eventually pull them out of orbit. National and international guidelines recommend that satellites lower their altitude at the end of their operational lives so that they will reenter the atmosphere and make this possible. Previously the goal was for this to take 25 years at most; Lemmens and his peers now suggest five years or less, a time frame that would have to be taken into account from the start of mission planning and design. 

Explaining the need for this change in policy can feel a bit like preaching, Lemmens says, and it’s his least favorite part of the job. It’s a challenge, he says, to persuade people not to think of the vastness of space as “an infinite amount of orbits.” Without change, the amount of space debris may create a serious problem in the coming decades, cluttering orbits and increasing the number of collisions.  

Shaping the future: Lemmens says his wish is for his job to become unnecessary in the future, but with around 11,500 satellites and over 35,000 debris objects being tracked, and more launches planned, that seems unlikely to happen. 

Researchers are looking into more drastic changes to the way space missions are run. We might one day, for instance, be able to dismantle satellites and find ways to recycle their components in orbit. Such an approach isn’t likely to be used anytime soon, Lemmens says. But he is encouraged that more spacecraft designers are thinking about sustainability: “Ideally, this becomes the normal in the sense that this becomes a standard engineering practice that you just think of when you’re designing your spacecraft.”

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