An illustration of the Naval Research Laboratory’s plan
to knock space junk out of orbit
Here on earth, green enthusiasts tend to judge people for littering, but for 50 years, we’ve had little opposition to cluttering up space. Today, there are hundreds of millions of objects in low-earth orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to trashed lens caps and frozen urine. More than just an aesthetic problem, space junk can crash into satellites and endanger ships passing through on their way to deeper space. Several plans have been proposed to clean up the mess, some requiring advanced materials like aerogels, but the latest suggestion is a bit more cost effective: It just requires a bit of dust.
Out in the asteroid belt beyond Mars, two asteroids rendezvous-ed in the darkness, with explosive results. Atomic bomb level explosive.
These two asteroids, one probably 400 feet wide and the other, smaller asteroid around 10 to 15 feet across, collided sometime in early 2009. This is the first time we humans have observed an asteroid impact right after it has occurred, and the first time a resulting x-shape has been seen. Researchers aren’t sure what caused the novel shape, and they were surprised by how long the dust tail has lasted. The analysis of the finding, originally announced earlier this year, is published in Nature this week.
From Phil Plait, DISCOVER’s Bad Astronomer:
This is a false-color image showing the object, called P/2010 A2, in visible light. The long tail of debris is obvious; this is probably dust being blown back by the solar wind, similar to the way a comet’s tail is blown back. What apparently has happened is that two small, previously-undiscovered asteroids collided, impacting with a speed of at least 5 km/sec (and possibly faster). The energy in such a collision is like setting off a nuclear bomb, or actually many nuclear bombs! The asteroids shattered, and much of the debris expanded outward as pulverized dust.
Looking at the image, the bright spot to the left is most likely what’s left of one of the two asteroids, a chunk of rock estimated to be a mere 140 meters (450 feet) across. In the press release they’re not clear about the curved line emanating to the right of the nucleus. It may be — and I’m spitballing here — dust blown back from a stream of chunks, since the tail is broad and appears to originate from that swept curve, and not from the nucleus itself. The other filament perpendicular to the curve is from yet another piece of debris.