Posted by: greeningwashington | March 12, 2009

Waste in Space

space_debris_evolution_in_pictures_12

Space Debris. Illustration from the esa.com

Polluting has reached the final frontier!

As if it weren’t enough to corrupt Earth, the orbital environment has become a wasteland for satellites and spacecraft junk.

No, this pollution is not a recent event; we have been polluting our orbital environment since the late 1950s ever since the launch of satellites like Sputnik 1.

The intentional dumping of spacecraft parts and rocket motor fuel in the orbital environment has increased drastically over the past fifty years.

According to the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) (yes, the ODPO is a real entity), approximately 17,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist and the number of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is greater than 200,000. Additionally, particles smaller than 1 cm probably exceed tens of millions.

One centimeter may not seem large comparatively, but when an object the size of an apple is orbiting at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour, the damage caused by collision would be sizeable.

What is orbital debris exactly? It is any man-made object orbiting the Earth that no longer serves any purpose according to the ODPO. However, intentionally dumped objects also are classified as orbital debris. The ODPO list the following as examples:

Derelict spacecraft and upper stages of launch vehicles, carriers for multiple payloads, debris intentionally released during spacecraft separation from its launch vehicle or during mission operations, debris created as a result of spacecraft or upper stage explosions or collisions, solid rocket motor effluents, and tiny flecks of paint released by thermal stress or small particle impacts.

The recent close encounter of the International Space Station with a piece of debris approximately 1cm (0.3in) in size has served as a ‘wake-up call’ concerning the amount of pollution in orbit. And it’s not disappearing anytime soon; in fact, more debris is being created by missile tests and satellite collisions. Take for example the January 2007 China missile test that created 2,500 new pieces of debris in orbit according to official U.S. Government reports.

The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) has been created to “address orbital debris issues and to encourage operations in Earth orbit which limit the growth of orbital debris,” according to NASA. However, little in way of legislation has been done to prevent future orbital pollution.

Look on the bright side, extra terrestrials might think twice before entering our atmosphere for total world domination if our orbital environment is any indication of the state of the Earth.

Until next time.

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