I guess most of us are concerned about Earth pollution, however we humans are particularly good in producing tones of junk even faraway from our planet’s surface…
- There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
- 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.
- The total number of tracked objects exceeds 21,000.
- More than 4,600 satellites orbit Earth, along with more than 14,000 old rocket parts and pieces of space junk.
- This dangerous orbital garbage is moving roughly 10 times faster than a speeding bullet and takes a long time to crash back to earth. This debris can stay up there for hundreds of years.
Which problems can it cause? In first, place, a so-called “debris avoidance maneuver”. NASA spends a lot of time and resources to re-calculate the routes of the ships and satellites.
When predictions indicate that the debris will pass close enough for concern and the quality of the tracking data is deemed sufficiently accurate, Mission Control centers in Houston and Moscow work together to develop a prudent course of action.
Sometimes these encounters are known well in advance and there is time to move the station slightly. Other times, the tracking data isn’t precise enough to warrant such a maneuver or the close pass isn’t identified in time to make the maneuver. In those cases, the control centers may agree that the best course of action is to move the crew into the Soyuz spacecraft that are used to transport humans to and from the station. This allows enough time to isolate those spaceships from the station by closing hatches in the event of a damaging collision. The crew would be able to leave the station if the collision caused a loss of pressure in the life-supporting module or damaged critical components. The Soyuz act as lifeboats for crew members in the event of an emergency.
Here are some examples…
- In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.
- 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.
What is the solution to the problem?
“The RemoveDEBRIS platform will be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) using a NanoRacks service and Space X rocket in 2018. The sequence of launch is described as follows. The platform is packed in specialist boxes which are launched to the ISS.
The boxes are unpacked by the astronauts and installed on a slide table. The slide table moves into the ISS Japanese module and a special robotic arm grapples the platform and moves it outside the ISS. The arm then releases the platform in a very specific direction and the mission begins,” says University of Surrey.
The 100-kilogram spacecraft, developed by a consortium of 10 European companies including Airbus Defense and Space and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., would be the largest and heaviest satellite deployed from the ISS.
“Nothing of this size has ever been launched from the ISS before,” said Jason Forshaw, RemoveDebris project manager at the University of Surrey’s Surrey Space Centre, which leads the consortium.
“Most of the things they are launching from there are cubesats, much smaller objects, 10 kg or so,” Forshaw said. “As you can imagine, we are progressing through the safety reviews and we are just going through those at the moment.”
The cost of the project is €15.2 million ($17 million), funded by the European Union. The launch was already delayed several times due to legal problems (such as who owns the defunct sattelites?).
Lets hope for the best!