12 July 2005

SPACE JUNK, DEBRIS & TRASH

“It is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.”
Space Act of 1958 (as amernded)

Photo credit: BBC - Science & Nature - Space animated clip.

'Space junk' or 'space debris' is any artificial rubbish orbiting our Earth. There may be over a million pieces of space junk currently orbiting Earth. However, all but 9,000 of these are smaller than a tennis ball.

The trash heap of manufactured materials encircling our Planet Earth reminds me of just how far we have to evolve as a species. Can’t figure out our trash problems here and think we have the right to continue into space…sure doesn’t feel right to me.

Imagine what it must look like entering our Solar System – one gorgeous little planet stands out – not for it’s pristine beauty but for the trash and pollution on and encircling it. If we are not embarrassed as a species – I sure am!

Tidbits:

The oldest debris: US satellite Vanguard I, launched on March 17th 1958 - worked for only 6 years.

The most dangerous garment: A glove - In 1965, during the first American space walk, Gemini 4 Astronaut Edward White lost a glove. The glove stayed in orbit for a month with a speed of 28,000 km / h.

Most trash award: The Mir space station - During its first 10 years of operation it released more than 200 objects, mostly rubbish bags.

Other items include: A camera lost by Astronaut Michael Collins. A wrench and toothbrush also floated around for some time prior to entering Earth’s atmosphere. Spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, explosion fragments, paint flakes, dust and slag from solid rocket motors and coolant released by RORSAT nuclear powered satellites add to the ever growing list of trash in our skies.

Projects offering solutions to space debris:

Orion – A Solution To The Orbital Debris Problem
Laser rays sent from the ground to evaporate a part of the space debris material, which would take them away from their trajectory, either to reenter the atmosphere or to be sent to orbits where they are no longer dangerous.

Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Tethers with lengths of several kilometers are rolled up in satellites. The idea consists of unwinding the tether when the satellite finishes its mission and taking advantage of the potential difference created between its ends due to the terrestrial magnetic field. This potential difference creates an electrical current along the tether, which consumes an energy that the satellite can only compensate by braking, so it starts to fall and finally reenters the atmosphere.

Photo credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

Links:

Shuttle study finds higher rrisk of fatal hit by debris
Space Debris -- from Eric Weisstein's World of Astronomy
NASA Orbital Debris Program Office
Space Debris Basics
European Space Agency
Australian Radiation Protection & Nuclear Safety Agency

Astronomy Magazine

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