A SPACE DEBRIS PRIMER FOR ASTRONOMERS
and CHRISTIAN VEILLET
Institut Azur Espace, 3 Impasse de l’Api
e, O6460 St-Vallier de Thiey, France (Tel.: +33-0-493-426252;
Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope, Kamuela, HI, USA
(Received 19 February 2003; Accepted 21 October 2003)
Abstract. In this journal, ‘space debris’ usually carries implications of aerospace activities, but it was
not always thus. Humankind has been concerned with sky debris (often not knowing it was that) since
eyes were turned skyward. Before space exploration began, astronomers specialized in comet tails, asteroids,
meteorites, aurorae and zodiacal light. It was inevitable that they stay near the forefront of the new space
technologies, even before Explorer I explained the aurorae. Now, the emphasis is on manmade debris, for
the simple reason that an astronomical experiment proved that to be the preponderant component of the total
debris environment. We present here a review survey of the total near-Earth debris complex, artiﬁcial and
cosmic. Our goal is three-fold: (1) To detail to both astronomers and spaceﬂight specialists the long and
heavy astronomical activity, (2) to give an overview of what has been and is being done, and (3) to suggest
some possible directions for the future.
Keywords: cosmic debris, history, manmade debris, mitigation, modelling, observation, prevention, size
1. Foreword and Introduction
There is a major problem when trying to address the overall question of space debris.
Astronomers have interested themselves in the problem for centuries – but rarely other than
from an astronomical point of view. Engineers and space researchers have done so for the
past 40 years, but rarely from other than an operational or budgetary point of view. But
in many respects, their interests are intertwined and inseparable. A major goal of this arti-
cle is to put the commonality of interest in the forefront in a context that will explain to
astronomers what otherwise might seem a curious action by one of their major professional
societies, as well as to explain to aerospace people that astronomers were and are yet in
some respects ahead of them.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has recently added space debris to the sub-
jects that fall under the purview of its committee on space pollution, which originally
concerned itself only with the effects of artiﬁcial light on the nighttime (observing) sky,
later adding radio interference to the nuisances to astronomical observation. So why space
debris? We tried to start laying out the reasons, in organizing a Topical Session on Space
Debris during the 200th meeting of AAS in Albuquerque (NM) June 2002 (cf. Mulholland,
2002a); a transcript will eventually be available from the convenor. By invitation of this
journal, we continue here with a survey review. The intent of the article is not to present
new science (although there is a bit), but to provide a tutorial both to astronomers who have
not previously realized themselves to be concerned and to space researchers/engineers who
have not realized the long involvement of astronomers.
Space Debris 2, 295–317, 2000.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.