Why Trash In Orbit Could Hurt Our Space Programs

“The ocean is tired. It’s throwing back at us what we’re throwing in there.” —US Senator speaking about waste dumped in the ocean and then washing ashore later

In A Nutshell

Humanity has managed to launch thousands of satellites into orbit since the space race started, and now we have a bit of a crisis due to lack of proper planning. Many of these satellites are no longer functioning and pose a danger to anyone we send up into space. They can even pose danger to people or objects down on Earth when their orbit eventually decays.

The Whole Bushel

Since we started exploring space we have changed the area around our world very shortly in just a few decades. Where before there was nothing, there are now thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth. Unfortunately, this has led to a problem that is starting to become very serious.

Years back, a man named Kessler was working for NASA and became concerned with the danger of satellites crashing into each other and creating debris in space. What he found was alarming. According to his equations, it would become increasingly inevitable that collisions would happen as we continued to fill up the sky. When this happened, we would end up with many smaller pieces of debris that could then cause more collisions. This could cause a chain reaction that would make it hard for us to use outer space for any purpose safely, whether to send up astronauts or use satellites for communication reliably.

Since Kessler’s discovery, scientists from around the world have been tracking debris in space in order to prevent collisions, especially with manned spacecraft. But despite their best efforts, collisions still happen and the amount of space debris continues to increase. To make matters worse, while we have not yet found any good solution to the problem, we continue to send more satellites into space and the amount of debris continues to increase.

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Right now, NASA estimates there are at least 500,000 pieces of debris larger than a marble and roughly 20,000 pieces larger than a softball. Unfortunately, small debris can be extremely dangerous if it makes a direct hit on anything, and the smaller pieces are always going to be harder to track down.

In fact, the problem Kessler talked about has started in the worst possible way. While we have had some collisions for a while, some experts from NASA believe we are now truly living in the Kessler syndrome. The chain reactions are happening faster and faster, and we are struggling to slow them down. Some estimates say the amount of junk in space could double every year as the chain reaction collisions get worse, and NASA is seriously beginning to face the reality that space will become mostly unusable unless we get a strong handle on the problem very soon.

Some early attempts were made to limit debris, which included joint regulations between different countries regarding how to deal with abandoned or retired satellites. Countries were supposed to move the orbits of non-functioning satellites and let orbits degrade over time, harmlessly falling back to Earth where they would no longer be in the way of all the other debris and satellites. However, this was not a perfect plan. At one point, China decided to blow one of their no longer functioning satellites into thousands of pieces, which only exacerbated the problem.

It’s now reached the point where we need to find some way to start removing the space junk. Otherwise, we’d eventually have to stop our space exploration until we could clear the area around our home world of all the garbage.

Show Me The Proof

Wired: The Looming Space Junk Crisis
NASA: Space Debris and Human Spacecraft

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