While it is something rarely thought about by most of us, for those looking to explore the cosmos the issue of “space junk” is an increasingly problematic one. As well as the billions upon billions of dollars’ worth of satellites, not to mention the International Space Station, there is a sea of debris, burned out boosters and dead satellites racing around Earth’s orbit. It is only through pure luck and some last-minute decisions that such debris hasn’t caused a major incident.
It is a problem that does need a solution, however. Otherwise, future missions to the stars may fail before they have the chance to escape Earth’s atmosphere if it happens to meet even a small piece of space junk head on. There are a number of ideas in the development stages on how to overcome the problem. It would appear whatever action is eventually taken, it needs to be sooner rather than later. And one that sees a collective human effort and agreement regardless of nationality.
For example, although there have been very few major incidents involving space junk, even one collision, even if it were of two pieces of “rubbish” no longer in use, would make the problem one-hundred times worse. These collisions turn two pieces of very trackable objects into many smaller objects, each setting off in different directions. These objects are traveling an estimated 17,500 miles per hour. Even an object the size of a pin can cause considerable damage to a satellite. Furthermore, should such a small object collide with an astronaut directly, it would be enough to kill them.
Before we look at this in more detail, check out the short video below that demonstrates the problem at hand.
Constant Danger Of Collisions
As we have written about before, the International Space Station is essentially the first permanent human residence in space. Since it’s official launch in the late-1990s, it has remained in Earth’s orbit providing us with a window into the cosmos.
It too, however, has been a victim of space junk. On several occasions, it has had to make last-minute adjustments to its location to avoid a collision. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that such a change takes days to complete. Most of the time, experts foresee these collisions, and the ISS has moved accordingly. Sometimes, however, there isn’t enough time to carry out such a move. While the outer body of the ISS undoubtedly sustains damage on these occasions, the astronauts themselves will enter a specially designed shelter – like a safe room – where they will remain until any damage can be assessed, and it is safe for them to return.
It isn’t just the ISS that has a permanent residence in Earth’s orbit. There are countless satellites roaming around the planet. These carry out various jobs in television broadcasts, to mobile phones and internet access. Basically, they are responsible for a huge portion of the modern, convenient way of life most of us enjoy today.
Although the repair of any potential damages would be overcome, in a world of increasing tension and distrust, the monitoring of space junk and such damage is of importance if only to avoid an “international misunderstanding”.
For example, should a satellite that is responsible for a nation’s defense systems suffer sudden damage, they may see it as an act of hostility from a perceived enemy nation. There were several such incidents involving UFOs and nuclear power stations that almost kickstarted US-Soviet conflicts beyond the rhetoric of the Cold War, for example.
International Cooperation Required
If we agree then that there needs to be complete international cooperation on not only how to combat the problem of space junk, but also on the understanding of its dangers to life on Earth, where do we go from here?
The US Air Force has seemingly taken the lead in the drive to catalog and track as many pieces of space junk as possible. They would begin doing so in the early-1980s and to date have over 500,000 pieces of “rubbish” on their database. There are also many international agreements in place to bring back as much space junk as possible to Earth instead of allowing to it remain in orbit and out of control.
There are several other long-term and much more ambitious projects to tackle the space junk problem – some of which we will look at in a moment. However, due to the astronomical costs any of the projects will involve, the pressure to succeed the first time is immense. This is partly relieved by a number of private companies who are more than willing to stump up the costs for a chance to not only solve a genuine world issue but to demonstrate their technology on the world stage. Although this would deal with the issue of costs, a failure would still risk turning an already large problem into a much bigger one. With this in mind, it is likely that any final decision on how to deal with the problem will likely involve both private and public funds and influence.
The short documentary below is worth taking the time to watch.
Some of the plans to tackle space junk are extremely interesting and futuristic. For example, the European Space Agency are developing a “robot astronaut” named “Justin”. It is the hope that Justin would carry out the repairs on the outside of the ISS. This will remove the risk to astronauts themselves. Even more remarkable are the plans for the Columbus laboratory on the ISS to control Justin using an exoskeleton glove. The specially designed glove will give the wearer the feel of touch using electrical pads and sensors. This is vital in such delicate repairs required in space.
In terms of protecting the planet, one particularly intriguing plan is the Space Fence Project. This is a system of digital radars that allow the tracking of smaller, but no less deadly, pieces of debris. This information will allow such agencies as NASA and the ESA to give ample warning for approaching dangers. In turn, this decreases the risk of damage or fatalities. It won’t, however, do anything to actually reduce the amount of space junk.
Other ideas are still very much in the planning stages. One such project aims to gather as much space debris as possible in a huge “space net”. Once achieved it will shift the mass of rubbish away from the Earth’s orbit and into outer space. Of course, where it ends up after that is anybody’s guess. Even more ambitious ideas include the use of laser technology. This will move or “push” larger pieces of debris out of the orbit of the Earth.
Ultimately if a solution isn’t reached, then many fear humans will literally be trapped on Earth. Unable to escape into space through the mess of our own making. The video below looks at the issue a little further.