When I was a kid some of my fondest memories were lying on a blanket in the back yard and watching the night sky. It still fascinates me and working in remote spaces where there is little to no light pollution affords me this opportunity again. Pollution is a hot topic globally with our war on plastics and I am a major advocate of ocean pollution and have been for some time. More recently I’ve become particularly interested in the amount of debris orbiting us. As a kid in the late 70’s and early 80’s spending hours watching the night sky for a glimpse of a single satellite was a highlight. Working on the Snowy River earlier this year an gazing at the night sky one night yielded 7 satellites and 1 flyby of the International Space Station in a 2 hour period. This peaked my interest about what’s really going on up there. Here’s what I found about being looped by thousands of intelligent devices and defunct parts that are up there.
How many? Workers with a NASA group and the US Strategic Command keep track of working satellites and space junk. They monitor more than 35 000 of these things, some the size of a baseball, others the size of floating trucks. Many more smaller objects aren’t tracked and may be intricately small like paint flecks. A bunch of these objects are military secrets. The other 19 000 now orbiting us in tight circles or long ellipses are not. You can see them on a website called Space Track. The ‘rough’ estimate of all elements that range between 1 – 10cm in diameter is 500 000 and over 100 million other debris particles less than 1 cm ….. so yep, it’s pretty crowded up there.
As far as the US in concerned, at this point in time there are 1578 working US Satellites, 694 US rocket bodies and 3990 pieced of US space trash. So who owns the rest of it? What happens to it? … and where will it eventually go?
The big issue is the number of collisions between debris and satellites and the costs involved. The number of collisions has doubled in the past decade to 1200 and is estimated to quadruple over the next five years if we don’t find a solution.
Some weather and other Earth observing satellites fly about 300 miles above us. A crowd of ‘geosynchronous’ satellites are parked above the equator 22 240 miles above us and are in the perfect place to stay in sync with our 24 hour rotation. Satellites used to monitor space weather orbit 186 000 miles above us and for reference, the moon, our only natural satellite is approximately 240 000 miles away. Most of our concentrated ‘waste’ is found in the 500 mile zone and travels at a rate of 4-10 miles/second.
The International Space Station is required to remaneuver 1-3 times a year on average to avoid collision courses with debris. The junk in orbit below 370 miles will usually fall back to Earth within several years, however anything above 600 miles will continue to orbit us for centuries. Currently there is an agreement that you put it up there, you bring it back, however this is not widely adhered to.
The newest defensive project to come about is the SPACE FENCE project, which won’t reduce the amount of space debris in orbit, however it will be able to assist in better tracking of what is up there. The Space Fence is a digital radar system the extends a virtual fence around the planet and will have the ability to log debris as small at 10 cm. The ability to track much smaller objects will give scientists a much more accuracy in predicting the movements of such objects as well as direct astronauts and satellites out of harm’s way. A step in the right direction, but it’s very much a stepping stone to where we need to be before the problems are under control.
Private companies are now stepping up to the cosmic plate with suggestions on how to combat the problem with ground breaking ideas like ‘harpooning’ and dragging larger object to desired locations for entry and reburn. If no way is found to stem the ever growing amount of dead man made items floating around our planet then it is predicted that in only a few hundred years we will essentially be trapped on Earth with space missions impossible due to the certainty of collision and loss of life.
So next time you jump in the car and turn on the Sat Nav, take a hike and turn on the GPS or lie in your tent looking at the stars …. Just think.
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