Of all the landfills to blight the planet, perhaps the biggest garbage collection on all is the one actually orbiting the Earth. In fact, the situation has begun to get so far out of control that space junk could potentially pose a threat to people, with one example provided by the 4.5m-long metal cylinder belonging to a Chinese satellite which landed last month on a jade mining area in Myanmar.
In addition, a further build of debris in outer space could even impede humanity’s attempts to travel and one day set up bases in space, and as Dr Hugh Lewis, a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southampton, explained while speaking at London’s Royal Astronomical Society:
“It’s not just that satellites can be damaged or destroyed by space debris today or tomorrow, it’s that the actions of our generation may affect the dreams and ambitions of future generations to work and live in space.”
Space Debris Needs Cleaning Up
Another expert in agreement is U.S. Air Force space chief Winston Beauchamp, who has proposed that it is high time serious action was taken regarding cleaning up space debris before we reach a point where it becomes too late. According to Beauchamp, space needs to be kept clean and regulated, as humans cannot get off the planet if we are too preoccupied navigating our way past treacherous debris fields.
At least one country seems to be heeding the warning signals early, though, and on December 9th the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched into space an unmanned Kounotori debris collector complete with an electrodynamic tether as part of an effort to protect astronauts, satellites and space stations against space junk.
17,500 mph Space Debris
In 2014, the International Space Station (ISS) had to reroute its position in order to steer clear of a debris field, and avoid parts from an old Ariane 5 rocket that had been launched by the European Space Agency. This material came within 1,000 feet of the ISS, and it was the second time in a three-week period that the ISS had to dodge similar remnants. Much of the junk in space is hurtling around at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, and during UK astronaut Tim Peake’s recent stint aboard the ISS just a small fleck of paint resulted in a 7mm chip to its window.
Smaller Objects Harder to Detect
Because the standards for cleaning up our own space mess are guidelines instead of mandates, there’s nothing stopping the owner of discarded satellites from using their remnant fuel to send the satellite into orbit, instead of bringing it home. While large objects are likely to have components that survive the reentry method, thus posing a definite risk to those on the ground, the biggest concern in space comes from smaller debris that are from the size of a marble to a softball. Those cannot be seen on radar or with the naked eye, and so while the larger objects can be avoided, the smaller ones cannot.
The Kessler Effect
There is also concern stemming from the Kessler Effect, proposed by a NASA scientist of the same name in 1978. The danger suggested here is that the density of debris could reach a point were the colliding of objects would only create more debris and more collisions, making space exploration an impossibility for generations to come. Needless to say, when looking at the bigger picture, it becomes clear that cleaning up space is a necessary endeavor for humanity, and that nations must find a way of working together, regardless of relations, to get this space junk cleaned up before it has implications so large that we cannot fathom them quite yet.