Space Junk Threat Growing Dire, Threatens Future Missions

Written by Dennis Bodzash on Sep. 04, 2011

Each dot represents a man-made satellite orbiting the Earth, showing that space is getting crowded.

In a study released at the end of last week, scientists warned that the amount of space junk was at ‘a tipping point’ and that, unless someone takes up the effort to clean up space, future space missions, both manned and unmanned, could be in grave danger of ending in disaster. Donald Kessleer, the retired head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Office, was chairman for the committee that conducted the risk assessment study.

Throughout history, it is an undeniable fact that humans leave trails of junk wherever they go, which includes space. There are thousands of man-made satellites floating around the Earth in addition to our natural satellite, the Moon. However, while many of these satellites are quite useful, others are junk that would be more at home in the cosmic junkyard, if there were such a thing.

The trouble is, there is no way to have a junkyard in space.

Throughout the history of spaceflight, the simple answer of what to do with unwanted material was simple: just let it float away. Unfortunately, in a problem that couldn’t have been unforeseen by someone, Earth’s orbit is now becoming filled with pieces of space junk ranging from dead satellites to astronauts’ daily garbage. Now, while this may not seem all that big of a problem, after all, the Earth is over 24,000 miles in circumference. The cause for concern is that this space litter is just not floating in orbit, but traveling around the Earth at17,500mph. Needless to say, anything traveling at that speed can do a lot of damage if it were to hit something.

Now, with more junk floating around in space than ever after more than 50 years of spaceflight, some scientists are worried that all of the man-made debris orbiting our planet may pose serious threats to space programs in the coming decades if something is not done to clean up space.

So, what are the solutions?

First of all, there’s the approach of retrieving as much of the space junk as is possible and bringing it back down to Earth or, in cases where possible, safely de-orbit dead satellites so that they burn up on reentry. Trouble here: This would be extremely hard to do, especially considering that the space shuttles, which had, by far, the largest payload capacities of any spacecraft in history, are all retired. Oh, yes, then there’s the question of money.

Option 2: Minimize garbage in the first place. While it may cause a bit of a problem to mission planners, simply making room on future spacecraft for garbage is the most economical way to go in regards to keeping space clean. In space, like on Earth, prevention is the best approach for protecting the environment. Simply put, no garbage, no problems.

Lastly, what are the consequences if policy makers fail to act?

At the rate we humans are going, there are predictions that, in the coming decades, the popular low-Earth and geosynchronous orbits of today may become unusable simply because of all the junk occupying them. Think about it: would any private business or government agency want to put a satellite into an orbit where it knew the multimillion-dollar piece of equipment was sure to be bashed to pieces?

So, while the environmental movement on Earth has gone mainstream and is well-entrenched in the public mind, space enthusiasts are undoubtedly hoping that, in the near future,the same can be done when it comes to space junk, too.

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