London: A growing storm of debris flying around in space is dramatically increasing the risk of orbital crashes, and steps to avoid them will add greatly to the costs of future space flight, British space experts say.
Their study into the future of space travel predicts that "close encounters" in orbit will rise by 50 percent in the next 10 years and by 250 percent by 2059 to more than 50,000 a week.
"The time to act is now, before the situation gets too difficult to control," said Hugh Lewis of the University of Southampton`s school of engineering science, who led the study. "The number of objects in orbit is going to go up, and there will be impacts from that."
The U.S. military said on Tuesday it is tracking 800 satellites on a daily basis for possible collisions and expects to be able to track 500 more by the year`s end.
Lewis`s team looked back to the beginning of the space age, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, to analyze how cluttered space has become since then and how much more so it is likely to be in future.
While the number of close encounters -- defined as objects passing within 5 km of each other -- is set to rise sharply, Lewis said the main effect would not necessarily be an increase in crashes, but in the number and cost of steps to avoid them.
His study estimated that satellite operators will have to make five times as many collision avoidance moves in 2059 as they will in 2019 -- each of them a strategic operation that takes time, skill and money.
Lewis was unable to put a price on avoidance steps, but said they would need to be high priorities in future space budgets.