Experts Declare War on Space Junk… So What Do We Do Now?

By Rachel Cernansky | February 19, 2009 4:29 pm

spacedebris.jpgFollowing last week’s collision of two satellites in orbit, and then the fireball that mysteriously fell from the sky in Texas, has come a flurry of debate over what to do with all the potentially dangerous debris orbiting the Earth in space. Experts are in Vienna this week, as part of a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, to discuss what to do with the vast amount of space debris, which includes millions of various-sized pieces of junk left during humanity’s messy first half-century of space exploration.

It’s a growing problem that no one knows how to deal with. Some suggest a cosmic cleanup is the way to go. Others say time, energy and funds are better spent on minimizing the likelihood of future crashes by improving information sharing [AP]. Richard Crowther, the British representative to this week’s U.N. meeting, says satellites should have a mechanism that automatically sends them back to Earth once their job is done, burning up safely in the earth’s atmosphere [Sky News]. Another solution, developed by the  International Academy of Astronautics, proposes attaching balloons to pieces of debris to increase their atmospheric drag and bring them back to Earth faster. Another … foresees attaching a 10-mile (16-kilometer) electrodynamic tether to debris that would generate a current, which then could be controlled from the ground enabling technicians to bring it down [AP].

Among the oddities in orbit are a glove, which was lost by an American astronaut doing repairs on the International Space Station (which is itself orbiting 135 miles up) [Times Online]. Researchers estimates of which hover at around 18,000 objects larger than four inches (10 centimeters). If you include debris that is less than 1cm in diameter, the total rises to tens of millions of items. These are added to by the shooting-down of satellites that have outlived their usefulness with ballistic missiles, which both China and the U.S. have done in recent years [Times Online]. On a space walk the effects [of a collision with even small pieces of space debris] would be disastrous: an object the size of a speck of paint hitting a spacesuit at 17,000 mph would have the same effect as a bullet [Sky News].

Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, predicts that if more junk accumulates, the likelihood of similar collisions — currently very rare — will increase by 2050. To Johnson, the “true solution” in the long run is to go get the junk — or push it away to a higher altitude before it has time to crash into anything [AP].

Related Content:
80beats: Satellites Collide Over Siberia, Creating Showers of Space Debris
DISCOVER: Astronomers Discover the First Ring Around a Moon

Image:  Wikimedia

  • Uncle Al

    Everything and its opposite are true in the social sciences. An advocate makes virtue of failure – the worse the cure the better the treatment (and the more that is required). Politically facile explication is then obvious – Top Secret/Lotus Eater imprimature and Dr. Schund,

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    How much of the debris is ferrous? Perhaps a magnetic scoop could be devised to capture a part of the debris?

  • Dan42day

    Just build a really powerful land based laser to vaporize the small stuff. If it is strategically located, it could also provide a last ditch defense against incoming warheads.

  • Master B

    I agree, Lisette. If we could create somewhat of a giant magnet, and just pulled all the magnetic metalsout of the sky, that would contribute highly to these efforts.

  • Glenn

    I really hope the above comments are in jest.

  • Roberto

    what about using the outdated space shuttles as giant dumpsters? They could be converted to fly unmanned and the cargo bay could hold a big magnetic scoop,they could stay up there for ages and get shot to hell by debris and still do their job, when the hold is full just guide them into a steep re-entry so the craft burns up.

  • Bill S

    Lisette: Not much, sorry …

    Dan42day: Vaporizing not as easy as it sounds; small stuff, depending on how you define “small” isn’t really the problem – it’s the “big” stuff we need to watch out for.

    Master B: See above … sorry!

  • Bill S

    Glenn: Apparently not, but it’s good that folks are thinking about it!

    Roberto: A scoop would only work on the small stuff … good thinking, though!

  • Luke Skywalker

    Just launch a few Naboo Starfighters and X-Wings…

  • mikieme

    maybe this is really a blessing. we’ll be less likely to waste money on future space exploration because of the added dangers of collision with the debris and less likely to put nucular weapons in space for the same reason. money would be better used on the economy right now

  • Reath

    Shoot the big things down. Can’t think of any practical ways of dealing with the smaller things.

    Perhaps we should make our space shuttles/spacesuits out of stronger material so that they can withstand ‘minor’ collisions.

  • sancho

    collect all the metal scraps and recycle them, you could save alot of money and see if there any sattelite parts that can be reused.

  • hubbleman

    Since the largest majority of the space junk lies well beyond the space station, most of it will hit other satellites, in the higher orbital plane. Using missiles to hit dead satellites, only causes more smaller debris, that needs to be tracked. A fix will have to be figured out soon though, as more and more debris is collecting in areas of space, that will take thousands of years, if ever for them to burn up in our atmosphere.

  • CurruptingTheEnvironment

    They Should Just Built A BIG Space Shuttle Too Collect All The Space Junk, Recycle It And Reuse The Parts That May Still Work

  • God

    I’ll shoot lighting on them

  • Nicholas

    I think they depending on the debris I presume that a good part of it can be used to build certain things. So instead of trying to bring it all back down to earth since it took alot of energy to get it up their in the first place we should look at solutions to capturing this debris and building space stations or something with it. Obviously it might be difficult to do such a thing since you would practically be designing the station as you go but I would say that it would be much better since it takes so much energy to get it up there.


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