Space Junk   Leave a comment

4-8-nrc-evaluates-nasas-orbital-debris-programs

Credit: NASA

Maybe you read The New York Time’s July 16, 2015 article regarding a fragment of a Russian weather satellite passing near ISS caused one astronaut and two cosmonauts to enter a Soyuz capsule until the all clear was issued.  It wasn’t the first time something like this happened, nor will it be the last.

Take a look at the above picture.  That’s a graphic representation of all of the flotsam and jetsam from the entire planet’s space industries. First, blame it on the United States and Russia. Then, blame it on any nation that dared test the limits of gravity.  Pretty soon, anything as minuscule as a paint fleck to a section of a satellite remained at various levels of orbit, zooming around at 175,000 mph/281,640 km/h.  Occasionally bits fall to earth, succumbing to gravity and burning up harmlessly as they enter the atmosphere.

NASA and the Department of Defense keep an excellent log of anything larger than a softball and if any debris comes close enough to the ISS, both Houston and Moscow work together to plan a strategy to keep the inhabitants safe.  If a threat is deemed plausible, all are instructed to go into the ISS’s lifeboats – the Soyuz capsules – in case a quick getaway is necessary.

But this poses a larger problem: what’s being done to clean up the mess?  Simply ask this question to Google and you’ll get numerous responses on various sites.  Space.com has an article listing 7 Wild Ways.   Popular Mechanics has its own solutions.   Here’s what Mental Floss has to say.

The truth is, nothing’s being done…yet.  Sure, the idea’s been kicked around, maybe even a few plans surfaced.  It seems getting there and back takes priority over all the mess it takes to accomplish our goals.  It’s a junkyard, for sure, and like the neighbor who refuses to let go of all the cars (and their subsequent parts) owned over the past 30 years, it’s unsightly, only getting worse, and isn’t going away.

Of course, there’s been a multitude of sci-fi inspiration drawn from this.  Take, for example, the recent movie “Gravity,” wherein Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone finds herself floating in space untethered thanks to a run-in with remains.  David Brin’s novel, “Existence” tells the story of an alien artifact tucked among the pieces of debris.

Sadly, this is a commentary on how the inhabitants of this planet choose to deal with exploration and conquering the impossible.  Mt. Everest is defiled by the remains of extreme tourism.  Roman ruins scattered about their former empire faced years of abuse from casual visitors seeking an up-close inspection.

SpaceX, to its credit, is developing multistage rockets that return to earth to be used in future missions.  It’s facing challenges with no successes yet, but it’s not giving up and it’s getting closer with each try.  They do seem to be one exception, though.

Until we learn that exploration often results in exploitation and near-irreversable damage, perhaps any further missions might benefit from following SpaceX’s lead.  If not, there won’t be any room up there to put a satellite nor will be be safe to remain in any space station.

 

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