The Peril of Space Junk — A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen
23,000 pieces of junk are spinning out there like a beehive around the earth
A 22-ton Chinese rocket is hurtling towards earth as I’m writing this.
The chances are it’ll land in the Pacific Ocean without any mishap. But there are no guarantees.
When disaster hit Space Shuttle Columbia during its atmosphere entry on February 1, 2003, at 18 times the speed of sound, it broke up into 84,000 pieces spreading out all over West Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It’s a miracle the damage on the ground was minimal.
And such accidents are not as rare as one might think.
“In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier,” according to NASA.
“On Feb. 10, 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial satellite. The collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk.
China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,000 pieces to the debris problem.”
There are more than 23,000 pieces of junk spinning out there, most the size of an apple, 70% of it on an orbit 1,250 miles from earth. They travel at up to 22,300 mph — faster than a speeding bullet.
Viewed from space, the collective junk looks like a beehive buzzing around our blue planet.
Imagine going to Mars needling your way through this mess and returning back from Mars safely. It certainly looks like a formidable problem for any interplanetary travel project. Future travelers are forewarned.
According to NASA “there are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.”
So “what kind of damage can a marble-size junk cause?” you may ask. In a lab test conducted by NASA, a small aluminum ball was shot at a thick aluminum block at a speed of 7 kilometers per second. The damage was substantial.
The computer simulations conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense suggest that pieces larger than 8 inches across will increase by 150% during the next 200 years. But the “junk between 4 inches and 8 inches is expected to multiply 3.2 times and debris less than 4 inches will grow by a factor of 13 to 20.” That’s enough threat to seriously damage or even bring down satellites, space ships, or the space station.
What’s Being Done?
So what's being done, other than training the space station crews with evasive maneuvers (conducted when the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000)?
Not much, it seems to me.
JAXA, Japan’s space agency, is trying to develop a 44-pound “space hammer” with a 2,300 feet electrified wire handle to knock debris out of orbit and send them to burn back to earth. Good luck focusing on a specific piece of junk within the beehive of metallic garbage spinning around our planet.
Sounds more like science fiction than a realistic solution to me.
Today we are using cellphones thanks to the satellites sent to orbit by rockets. Our weather forecasting is a marvel, again thanks to the same network of satellites in orbit. The Hubble telescope has opened a new chapter in our understanding of the universe.
But the bad news is, now we are saddled with a problem nobody expected and will not go away anytime soon.
This unintended consequence of technology and progress will continue to be a problem that will not be solved without international cooperation.
Are we going to be smart enough as a species to put aside our military and IP considerations and attack this exploding problem as though national borders did not exist?
Only time will tell.