The Consequences Of Space Debris


Space junk is an unavoidable side effect of humankind’s endeavours in space. From old communications satellites to jettisoned booster rockets, these objects no longer serve any purpose.

But, they do pose a hazard to other equipment in low Earth orbit. It’s often more difficult and expensive to remove such junk from space than to leave it be, so the number of pieces has steadily increased. In this article our contributor Maria Ramos examines the reasons for and dangers of space junk arounf the earth.

Uncountable Fragments

NASA and the European Space Agency believe that there are more than 100 million pieces of space debris circling around the Earth. Of these, more than half a million are between 1 centimetre and 10 centimetres while there are at least 21,000 pieces larger than 10 centimetres. It’s estimated that only 7 percent of space junk has any function whatsoever; the rest of it circles around uselessly at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour. Stuff in Space is a visualization of these man-made, orbiting gadgets in space.

We’re beginning to see an awareness of space debris enter the public consciousness with pop culture. In the 2013 film Gravity, space junk is a major driver of the plot as it is a collision between debris and a space shuttle that puts the protagonists in danger. The Japanese animated TV series Planetes centers around the crew of a spaceship whose task it is to clean up space debris before it can cause problems.

Increasing Numbers

The dangers of fast-moving space debris are not merely fictional constructs. In 2009, two satellites collided above Siberia at a speed greater than 25,000 miles per hours. The resultant crash caused the creation of more than 2,000 new pieces of space junk, all with their own orbits and directions of travel. It is to forestall a similar, but much worse, incident that the ground crew of the International Space Station (ISS) and Vandenberg Air Force Base cooperate.

Space debris increasingly pollute the Earth

Vandenberg tracks orbiting objects and lets NASA know if any are expected to pass near the ISS. The ISS is equipped with thrusters that allow it to maneuver, which it does several times per year in order to avoid space debris. If there isn’t sufficient warning time to move the station, its occupants must take cover as best they can until the danger has passed.

Worst Case Scenario

Although a collision between a piece of space junk and the ISS would be a potentially fatal nightmare, it’s not the worst that could happen. A scenario called the Kessler Syndrome predicts that as more and more objects whiz around the world at high speeds, collisions will occur more frequently. As collisions take place, more space debris is released as bodies break apart. Then because there are more individual pieces revolving around, the odds of further crashes will become yet higher.

Eventually, there will be an uncontrollable cascade of objects crashing into each other unpredictably, reaching a point where nothing could be safely launched into space and all existing orbiting equipment would be destroyed.

Neal Stephenson, best-selling science-fiction author and winner of the Hugo and Locus awards, recently released Seveneves, a book describing a scenario reminiscent of the Kessler Syndrome. There are differences, however, because in Stephenson’s novel, it is the explosion of the moon that causes uncountable pieces of debris to form rather than the collision of artificial spacecraft.

A Major Problem

If the Kessler Syndrome comes to pass, all our satellites would be severely damaged. Weather reporting, cell phone service, Internet connectivity and military surveillance would all be negatively affected. Needless to say, further attempts to engage in space exploration would be hazardous at best and maybe impossible.

According to Constellation Energy, space-based solar arrays are one of the most promising forms of green, renewable energy. This means that a Kessler Syndrome occurrence could also impact our move towards cleaner energy production.

There have only been a few attempts made to deal with the problem of space junk. Japan has been working on a process called Orbital Maintenance Systems, which would restore functionality to some orbiting spacecraft while causing others to de-orbit.

It has already launched an Engineering Test Satellite in 1997 with the ability to manipulate another satellite. The European Space Agency is planning something called e.DeOrbit, which would capture unwanted orbiting objects and then burn them up in the earth’s atmosphere.

Looking To The Future

If space is to continue to be the final frontier, then we must have the ability to access it easily and inexpensively. Space junk poses a threat to space exploration as well as more mundane activities, like meteorology and satellite television broadcasting. Existing efforts to remedy the situation have been desultory at best. More innovation and resources need to be devoted to this issue before a Kessler-type event begins because by then, it might be way too late.

* Maria Ramos is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication. She blogs about environmentally friendly tips, technological advancements, and healthy active lifestyles.  Twitter her @MariaRamos1889

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