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Every now and again someone raises a stern warning about the amount of space junk orbiting Earth. Those warnings are usually met with general indifference, as very few of us own satellites or travel regularly to low Earth orbit. But the DoD's assessment of the space junk problem finds that perhaps we should be paying attention: space junk has reached a critical tipping point that could result in a cataclysmic chain reaction that brings everyday life on Earth to a grinding halt.
Our reliance on satellites goes beyond the obvious. We depend on them for television signals, the evening weather report, and to find our houses on Google Earth when we're bored at work. But behind the scenes, they also inform our warfighting capabilities, keep track of the global shipping networks that keep our economies humming, and help us get to the places we need to get to via GPS.
According to the DoD's interim Space Posture Review, that could all come crashing down. Literally. Our satellites are sorely outnumbered by space debris, to the tune of 370,000 pieces of junk up there versus 1,100 satellites. That junk ranges from nuts and bolts lost during spacewalks to pieces of older satellites to whole satellites that no longer function, and it's all whipping around the Earth at a rate of about 4.8 miles per second.
Space debris remains one of the biggest challenges for a space-faring humanity in the 21st century, as even the smallest pieces can pose a serious threat to satellites, manned spacecraft and the International Space Station. Now our friends at Fast Company have stumbled on a nifty infographic by Austrian designer Michael Paukner that lays out the space clutter situation more clearly.
Each nation's contribution shows up as a series of circles. A white circle designates active satellites, a gray circle indicates dysfunctional satellites and a black circle represents pieces of orbital debris greater than 10 centimeters in diameter.
The biggest contributor to space junk is none other than the U.S., followed closely by a two-way tie between Russia and China. Interestingly, China managed to contribute all that debris despite just having half the number of active satellites compared to Russia, or one tenth the number of satellites in the U.S. fleet.
Hope that never happens...
Mad science agency DARPA has a new addition to its wish list: technology to clean up thousands of pieces of orbiting space junk. Surely, world peace can't come far behind on the agenda.
Satellites and manned missions alike have had to dodge a growing swarm of orbital debris in recent years. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network has detected more than 35,000 man-made objects since the space age began over 50 years ago, with 20,000 such objects currently remaining in orbit.
DARPA also noted that the number of cataloged debris objects has actually jumped by almost 50 percent since January 2007. That uptick in space junk comes courtesy of the Chinese government destroying a satellite in 2007, and a collision between an active U.S. satellite and a retired Russian communications satellite this year.
Having scrubbed the notoriously squalid streets of Paris spotless, the French have set their sights on a bigger clean-up project: the expanding swarm of space debris circling the planet. French spaceflight engineer Brice Santerre of the European aerospace company EADS Astrium has constructed the Aerobraking Sail for bringing defunct satellites out of orbit.
When a satellite dies, the built-in braking system will deploy two inflatable booms, which release a pair of heat-resistant polymer “wings.” The wings increase the friction drag that slows the satellite’s orbit and allow gravity to tug it into the lower atmosphere, where it will burn up in 25 years instead of the typical 50 to 100, Santerre says.
The 50-square-foot sail will get a test run on France’s Microscope satellite in 2016, three years after its launch. Santerre’s team is also applying the tech to the rockets used to put satellites in orbit, which can explode and create thousands of smaller chunks. Santerre says the sail won’t work on things smaller than a beach ball, which regularly ding the space shuttle’s windows on reentry, but it should help mop up the big stuff.
Thousands of manmade pieces of space junk orbit the Earth, threatening astronauts and unmanned missions alike. Now the U.S. Air Force Space Command wants an electronic "space fence" that could track any orbital object larger than two inches in width.
Such a surveillance system would require a global network of sensitive S-band radar stations that operate in the gigahertz range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The U.S. Air Force currently relies on a system dating back to 1961, which only covers the continental United States, and can only track objects 20 inches in width or larger.
The growing cloud of space debris in Earth orbit includes more than 16,000 pieces of debris larger than four inches in width. And that only seems likely to grow, given incidents such as a satellite collision in February and space weapon tests by several nations involving old satellites.