There are more than 20,000 known and tracked debris orbiting the earth, and each debris is moving at a speed of 15,000 mph, posing a threat to future space missions, and no one cares about cleaning them up. ……why? because it is too difficult.
In the early 1960s, the US Army wanted to develop a new way of communicating with their armed forces around the world: if an enemy cut submarine cables, they could only rely on radio signals bouncing back from the ionosphere, which was an unreliable method. The Cold War era Solution? A program called Project West Ford, a plan to hurl 480 million tiny silvers of copper needles into space to give Earth an artificial ionosphere and reliable means of communication.
However, after the first successful launched, the program was cancelled. One reason is the accelerated development of communication satellites, and the other reason is that everyone realizes that sending large amounts of random debris into space may be a bad idea.
Since then, the number of space debris has only increase. The Earth’s orbit contains more than 23,000 objects larger than 4 inches, and another 500,000 objects larger than 1 cm, possibly 100 million, it is lower than this number, According to NASA. And there are all sorts of things in there: dead spaceships, spent rocket boosters, lost equipment from space missions (including a glove, a camera, a blanket, a wrench, and somehow a toothbrush), random bits of smashed equipment, stains of paint. , Metal parts, frozen propeller and lots of screws and bolts.
Space becomes messy and life becomes dangerous.
On April 24, 1996, the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization used a Delta II missile to launch an infrared surveillance satellite into orbit. About a year later, Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma was minding business in the park when she was hit in the shoulder by a 6-inch piece of fiberglass & aluminum. Minutes later, a few hundred miles away, other parts of the second stage of this Delta II missile crashed.
Williams became the first (and so far only) person to be hit by falling space debris, but an estimated 100 tons of space debris hit the surface of the earth every year (although most of it falls into the ocean and poses no risk). to people).
And there’s more: in 2007, China tested its anti-satellite technology and launched a massive hyperspeed slug on a weather satellite. The test worked and produced more than 3,000 tracked pieces of junk in orbit. In 2009, a (working) Iridium communications satellite was supposed to sling silently by (dysfunctional) Russian military satellite Kosmos that had almost 600 meters to spare, but it didn’t, and this event triggered another avalanche of 2,000. Debris. Objects.
About once a year the International Space Station has to maneuver to avoid a dangerous piece of garbage while astronauts hide safely in a Soyuz capsule. The space shuttle is famous for collecting holes and craters in its windows, radiators and thermal tiles from collisions with … mostly splinters of paint.
Despite their small size, the astonishing speed of space debris poses a very real risk to future space missions. With the launch of mega constellations of broadband internet satellites from companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon, many rightly fear the arrival of “Kessler Syndrome”. when enough debris leads to enough collisions to release even more debris, which cascades to the point that Earth orbit is an unsafe and unusable wasteland.
Laser Brooms, Boosters, Nets and Harpoons
Unfortunately, private companies & national governments are slow to react. Most efforts focus-on mitigation & avoiding the creation of space debris in the first place. Missiles, for example, must use all of their fuel and reagents to minimize the risk of an unexpected explosion. When satellites end their life, they will burn in the atmosphere and (hopefully), or, if high enough, they will enter a “graveyard orbit“ hundreds of miles higher than any useful object.
While these containment strategies can help control the spread of space debris, they do nothing to get rid of what is already there. Earth’s own atmosphere will do some of the work if it crawls over anything in low Earth orbit, but depending on the orbit, this process can take anywhere from a few months to a few decades.
Space agencies and private companies have come up with a variety of cleanup ideas. Special missions could force other satellites into the atmosphere or into the graveyard, using technologies as old as civilization itself: harpoons and nets. Other plans call for ground based-lasers to heat one side of a satellite, causing it to change orbit and be trapped in Earth’s atmosphere.
But in addition to the ground based-laser, which is amusingly referred to as a “laser broom”, all proposals call for the launch of new satellites, which makes cleaning the satellites uncomfortably expensive. Add to this the fact that any “satellite cleaning” technology automatically becomes a remove an enemy satellite from space “technology. This means that any proposal moves quickly in the murky waters of defense, international diplomacy, & the militarization of space.
Right now, our best strategy is to track, monitor, and warn and keep your fingers crossed using a network of ground and satellite observatories.
Article originally published on Space.