A threat to human access to Space
There are hundreds of thousands of debris in Earth’s orbit. While the biggest are tracked through ground radar, the large majority of pieces remain invisible. Two major recent events which contributed to the problem are the 2007 satellite destruction test by China and the 2009 collision between Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251.
With the miniaturisation of electronics and increased dependence on global networks, the population of small satellites is expected to explode in the next years: hundreds of satellites will be placed in Earth Orbit with no means of de-orbiting.
Collisions are becoming increasingly frequent and damaging. The 2009 collision destroyed an active satellite worth tens of millions of dollars.
Moving towards international regulation
International guidelines recommend de-orbiting 25 years after end of life. However, no strict regulation exists yet. When this comes, companies will have to comply, either by including de-orbiting mechanisms in their spacecraft or by employing a service company to actively de-orbit them at the end of life.
Also, there is international recognition that 5-10 of the currently existing large debris should be removed each year by 2020. ESA’s CleanSpace program is targeted at developing these capabilities, with the specific target of EnviSat, an 8-ton satellite that poses a high risk of a catastrophic collision.