• This week's ISS avoidance maneuver highlighted the growing space debris problem
  • A team of researchers surveyed the geosynchronous region for small, faint debris
  • They said a majority of the objects were left unmonitored

Satellites and other space objects continue to be threatened by the space debris accumulated in Earth's orbit and according to a new study, the majority of these objects are not even being monitored enough.

It was just earlier this week when NASA and Russian flight controllers worked together to perform an "avoidance maneuver" that would prevent the International Space Station (ISS) from being hit by a piece of unknown space debris. This was not the first time the ISS had to perform such a maneuver, with Tuesday's efforts being the third in 2020 alone.

This event brought a lot of attention to the ever-growing space debris problem and prompted NASA to call for better management of these objects.

In a study recently published in the journal Advances in Space Research, researchers highlighted the issue by showing just how much of the orbital debris, commonly referred to as man-made debris, are actually left unmonitored.

For the study, the team conducted a survey of the geosynchronous orbital debris, specifically optimizing the search for fainter debris that are not as easily observed as the larger ones. These fainter objects are typically too small or poorly reflected to be monitored in catalogs, making them particularly problematic especially since they can still cause significant damage when they collide with active satellites.

"Strips of sky were scanned above, along and below the geostationary belt, where most of the operational geosynchronous satellites reside," a news release from the University of Warwick said.

The researchers found that in the geosynchronous region, some 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) above the equator, over 75% of the faint objects they detected both over and below 1 meter could not be matched with known objects in the USSTRATCOM catalog, which was described as the "most complete public catalog of space objects."

"We need to probe the faint debris population further and obtain more data to gain a better understanding of what's out there," study lead author James Blake of the University of Warwick said in the news release. "It's important that we continue to observe the geosynchronous region with large telescopes wherever possible, to start to build up a more complete feel for the faint debris environment."

As of Jan. 1, 2020, NASA has noted over 23,000 known orbital debris larger than 10 centimeter (3.9 inches), while there are about 500,000 known smaller particles ranging from 1 to 10 cm. In total, it is estimated that there are over 8,000 metric tons of debris orbiting the Earth.

These objects can have various origins, from other satellites that have reached their mission end to rocket bodies. Over time, these objects can shed bits of material such as flecks of paint that end up becoming even more space debris. And despite being small in size, these objects can cause serious damage.

In the case of the ISS this week, the space laboratory was unharmed and both the U.S. and Russian segments were able to continue with normal activities. But it showed how these objects could disrupt missions and be potentially dangerous.

An artist's illustration showing the swarm of space debris orbiting Earth. ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL