The first contact with space was in 1957 when the first artificial satellite was placed into orbit. It was a big moment for humankind. And it became even bigger when the number of satellites sent into orbit and the number of launched rockets increased. It was all amazing. Until people realized all those big moments had consequences and they might affect many things.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the wastes in a spaceship or where all the remains from a lost rocket went? Well, it did not go too far. Space waste began to accumulate right after the beginning of the space age, with the launch of Sputnik1. And with the increase in the number of launches, the risk of collisions started to grow as well. Let’s look at those risks and how we could mitigate them!
Space waste, also known as space debris or space junk, is all of the human-made things that were sent into space and are not currently used or serve a useful function. Space debris could be parts of the spacecraft that are released intentionally due to the launch of the spacecraft or it could be unintentionally released from a rocket body such as paint flecks, it could occur from collision or explosions, dead satellites, waste thrown from spacecraft, and much more. Space debris is a growing problem. Even a small amount of waste is very harmful due to the speed it has. If it hits another object or a working satellite, an explosion occurs and a new cloud of waste appears.
Debris in the lower orbit often returns to the atmosphere in a few years and mostly burn up till they reach the ground. But the higher the altitude, the longer it takes for objects to exit the Earth orbit, nearly hundreds or thousands of years or more.
According to ESA, there are nearly 130 million objects from 1mm to 10cm and 34 thousand objects greater than 10cm circling the Earth’s orbit. As stated by NASA, all those space debris orbiting the Earth exceeds 8,000 tons. And they have a speed of 7 to 8 km/s. Although, it could increase to 10 km/s or even 15 km/s from the impact of another object. Therefore, collisions even from the smallest space debris pose a great risk.
Risks of space junk collisions are getting more serious each day. Especially these times due to the high number of satellites. According to a satellite database, there are currently 3,372 operating satellites orbiting the Earth. Space waste is not only dangerous for operating satellites, but also for spacecraft or even humans that are in orbit. Small ones could hit satellites or rockets and damage them. But the bigger ones could create collisions and cause more space debris to occur. This is also called Kessler Syndrome or Kessler Effect.
Donald Kessler, a scientist in NASA, described a domino effect scenario where the debris from the collision would cause further collisions and each would create more debris and more destruction until nothing was left in orbit. Even though the probability of two 10cm or larger objects crashing is very low, it is never zero. In 2009, an operating satellite collided with a non-functional satellite, destroyed it and caused more debris to circle around the Earth.
First of all, we have to cease creating new orbital debris to prevent collisions which leads to more debris, and secondly, with the help of the high-tech waste management methods we have to start collecting what is in the Earth’s orbit.
To prevent bigger impacts, spacecraft are made by a two-layer outer coating to protect them from small objects. When the waste hits the spacecraft, the first contact will be with the first layer. The impact will be absorbed by the second layer and the pressurized interior, including astronauts, would not be damaged.
Another method for the prevention of the collisions is to constantly maneuver to get rid of the wastes larger than 10 centimeters. NASA is currently tracking 500,000 space junk that has the potential to damage or destroy orbiting satellites or spacecraft.
One of the easiest ways to get rid of space debris right now is to change their orbits to allow them to enter the Earth’s atmosphere under control, where they will be burned in the upper layers.
In the near future, with innovation in technology, collecting space junk will be much easier. One method to get rid of space debris is by catching and moving it with nets, harpoons, or robotic arms. Another idea is based on the use of a huge electromagnet. This magnet can push the space junk into the Earth’s atmosphere. Other methods are destroying space debris by breaking them down with laser satellites, pushing them out of Earth’s orbit with a spacecraft, using solar-powered nets to stop larger debris.
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