|Space debris populations seen from outside geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Note the two primary debris fields, the ring of objects in GEO, and the cloud of objects in low earth orbit (LEO).|
First Published in print in ConNotations NewsZine, Issue #5 - October/November 2011
Prior to 1961 there were less than 60 manmade objects in orbit around the earth. Today there are several million floating around up there creating increasing issues for space science, astronomy, and future human missions to space.
In the same way that the collection of consumer waste and overflowing sanitation systems create threats to our health here in our cities, so the increasing numbers of dead, dying, and discarded satellites is increasing the risk to both manned and unmanned space vehicles placed in orbit to tell us more about our world. Just as human wastes play hosts to bacteria and viruses that can sicken and cause death in our cities, so too our man-made objects are colliding and breaking apart into smaller and smaller pieces that represent real threats to not only spacefaring vehicles, but on occasion fall out of the sky and injure people below.
NASA, among others continues (after 50 years) to study the problem using what else? more sattellites. But here is a curious thought; NASA tells us in this page that the LDEF was launched in '82 and retrieved in '90, yet here, NASA LDEF Data Page they say it was launched in '84 and retrieved in '90. Granted, the difference is only two years, but if they cannot keep track of the true data from one sattellite, how can we expect them to keep track of thousands of active satellites, hundres of dead ones, and the millions of pieces of deady bolts, tools, and other bits of metal threatening any new project for space.
So, ... what now? I can imagine a host of interesting sci-fi stories of the future challenges to space travel, in fact, I can remember reading at least one or two in my life already. While intriguing, we must become far more aware of our environment - the plastics we buy that do not degrade, the food wrappers, and coffee cups, and cigarettes we indiscriminately discard out of the car window must each be re-thought. We must begin holding our legislators to task for self-serving decisions that ultimately threaten all of us from both our landfills and "orbital space-dump".
Clearly NASA can no longer keep its information accurate, much less mitigate space junk, any more than a politician can tell the truth. But is it realistic to cease all future launches until the mess is cleaned up? I am not sure, but I DO believe that the time for us as individuals to reach out and pay attention to what our bureaucracies are up to, and make them accountable for the increasing number of "messes" they keep leaving us, the public, to deal with. The Whipple shield represents a single effort to protect satellites in space from this junk, but I was unable to find any references to any other tool in use. NASA is true to it's form of selecting one track and "sticking to it" no matter how limited it's application is.
I do believe that private space companies hold the cards in the opportunity they represent. It is private companies that represent (at least for now) the energy, vision, and enthusiasm we need to tackle the challenges that face us. SpaceX, Bigelow, Virgin are just a few who are exploring different ideas to further our push into space.
And just to offer my own idea ... How about a gas-charged parasol of mylar on a mile-long cable that acts like an anchor for satellites that have outlived their usefulness. Align the satellite so the parasol points to earth, fire the charge, sending the parasol deeper into the atmosphere like an air-anchor or air-brake. It could be built from inexpensive materials, mass-produced for satellites. Hey, its an idea, clearly something NASA is short of these days.
Sponsored by Wiz Kidz International and ConNotations NewsZine.