Continuing the generation of an initial operational plan for Outbound, the next milestone would be the development of Satellites. (OPS.2)
Such efforts are mature these days, and have been for many decades, which mean they’re pretty much complete in terms of operational TRL, though advancement continues. The next big challenge in the technological lifecycle of satellites beyond is what to do at the end of their useful operational lives. For many years, the main obsolescence strategy was to abandon a system in place, under the assumption of either “space is a big place” and collisions were unlikely, or the satellite would degrade and reenter on its own. Of course, with all the launches that we’ve lobbed up there, space is seeming less and less big.
There have been some recent efforts to improve the situation, especially for Geosynchronous satellites. In 2002, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has made it a legal requirement that such systems commit to placing themselves into a “graveyard” orbit at end of life, or they won’t be given permission to launch. So that is something. A lot of satellite providers are now also including deorbiting in their overall mission plan of their own volition, as well, under the recognition that if Earthly space becomes too cluttered, it only makes further space-based business activities harder to do.
Regardless of these changes in disposal planning, there are a lot of satellites orbiting our planet, and an emerging technological market is beginning to open in response to the problem. A British effort being run out of the University of Surrey, called RemoveDEBRIS, has thus far flown three missions to evaluate techniques for capturing this space junk. Their most recent mission was just this past week, using a harpoon-like appendage to skewer a simulated target, and met all their test objectives.
The debris removal market could be the next big advancement in satellite technology, and probably not a moment too soon.