An end to space travel?


The picture above shows space junk being tracked by NORAD radar

This is one of the most depressing pieces of news I’ve read in awhile. It means the beginning of the end for space travel, and possibly global cooling. The New York Times reports in an article on the amount of space junk in Earth Orbit that we may be past a point of no return.

According to NASA officials, the amount of discarded rocket and satellite debris we’ve put into Low Earth Orbit is at critical levels. Recently nearly 1000 new pieces resulting from testing the new Chinese anti-satellite weapon put the amount of space debris that is trackable, at over 10,000 pieces, and there may well be 100’s of thousands of smaller bits. With that much space junk, its now only a matter of time before collisions between two large objects (like a couple of old rocket boosters) will start an uncontrollable cascade of new collisions.

The litter is now so bad that, even if space-faring nations refrained from further interference, collisions would continue to create more clutter just above our atmosphere. It is like a nuclear fission chain reaction, with each bit of junk crashing into another breaks off dozens more bits, which careen in new orbits, eventually becoming a cloud of metallic debris like a shell around earth. As the bits get pulverized to smaller and smaller pieces, it may also become dense enough to start blocking a significant amount of sunlight. I’m not joking when I say it will solve the global warming problem, but it could also create a whole other series of climate problems too that may take centuries to solve.

Space debris is a very difficult problem to deal with, and some say its impossible. It will likely hinder future space exploration. Your kids and grandkids may never know the wonder of space exploration or even space tourism. It means the International Space station may come down, and the shuttle may never fly again if the problem gets worse.

Some may ask: “Why don’t we just put up a big net on a rocket and run it around gathering debris, and then burn it up in the atmosphere?”

It’s because of the huge velocities involved. All of it at least has orbital velocity, about 18,000 miles per hour. And much of it is going in different and random orbits. To get an idea of the problem, try designing a catchers mit that will catch an 18,000 mph fastball without it exploding into more bits and taking your arm off at the same time.

But at least some engineers are trying to design a way to solve the problem. Here is a Japanese sketch on the idea:


I’m not sure if its the “Rodan” or “Mothra” model. 😉

Here are some facts about space junk:

In 1965, during the first american space walk, the Gemini 4 astronaut Edward White, lost a glove. For a month, the glove stayed on orbit with a speed of 28,000 km / h, becoming the most dangerous garment in history. It was the original “wardrobe malfunction”.

More than 200 objects, most of them rubbish bags, were released by the Mir space station during its first 10 years of operation.

Each year about 800 new objects are added, and roughly half that number plunge back down toward earth. The rest stays orbiting for years, and depending on the height of the obit, perhaps centuries.

Objects as small as soccer balls can be tracked by NORAD radars, but much smaller and lighter fragments can present a hazard to travelers in space.

There are over 3100 spacecraft orbited around earth at this moment. Two thirds of them are inactive.

The most space debris created by a spacecraft’s destruction was due to the upper stage of a Pegasus rocket launched in 1994. It was dormant, but something went wrong in its near empty fuel tank later. Its explosion in 1996 generated a cloud of some 300,000 fragments bigger than 4 mm and 700 among them were big enough to be catalogued. This explosion alone doubled the Hubble Space Telescope collision risk.

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L.A. Simpson
February 7, 2007 11:42 pm

Wow, that is terrible news. I had no idea. Here I am worrying about garbage landfills, when there are garbage spacefills going on.
I previously thought of space as somewhat pure, but of course…thanks to us earthlings…well, we tend to muddle everything up.
Thanks for this information, even though it is a bummer, I still enjoy learning about space related topics.

February 8, 2007 7:58 am

Maybe a program designed to increase global obesity could be used. As we all grow in girth the earth’s gravity would margninally increase thus pulling all of the debris into the atmosphere.
The other side of the coin would be that we could all go on super-model diets, lowering the planets mass and decreasing gravity. The debris would then be flung into space along with Kate Moss.
This is just another way I like to think globally but act locally. So what should we do stuff or starve?

February 8, 2007 9:28 am

Hi Lon,
This is a trick question, right?
The mass of our planet, and its inhabitants, is fixed. It makes no difference how much they consume or fast, its all coming from, and being returned to, the planet’s mass in some form. The only way that will change is if we lose mass into space or transport new mass here from the moon or some other planet.
But if it makes you feel any better, perhaps we could act locally and pass a city ordinance that prevents any citizen from launching any rocket within city limits that will reach orbital speeds. Sub-orbital rockets, such as kids model rockets, would of course be excluded as long as they are “green”.
Interestingly enough, one of the purported effects of global warming is that it decreases the density of our upper atmosphere, thus decreasing drag on orbital objects, be it satellites or junk, allowing them to stay aloft longer due to less atmospheric drag.
So, we may be double-doomed.

Anita Berkow
February 8, 2007 10:17 am

Holy Crap! That’s rotten news…how about we send up giant programmed magnets to “sweep” up debris in specified orbits, so as not to get near satellites…just an idea.

February 8, 2007 10:43 am

Hi Anita,
There’s very little iron in space…too heavy to lift. Mostly its aluminum, titanium, and magnesium alloys, which don’t respond to magnets.

February 8, 2007 12:44 pm

So what you’re saying is that we first have to manufacture Salisbury Steak TV dinners on the moon. Then we’d have to transport them here in order to get fat. It’s either that or a vegetarian diet on space algae, and I hate space algae (it tastes like really cold chicken).
Or perhaps we could manufacture the Salisbury Steak TV Dinners here, transport our fat people to the moon, and keep the super models on earth.
That way the earth’s mass decreases, the moon’s mass increases, and we send Anita’s giant magnet up to a new Lagrange point and wait for the debris to wash up.
Since I’ve solved this problem I’ll spend the rest of the day taking care of that whole world hunger thingy (again Salisbury Steak TV dinners come to mind).

February 8, 2007 1:02 pm

Well then, there you go. All the worlds problems once again solved by TV and food. See this:
and Lon has added his own rendition of the Salisbury Steak space junk solution:
Apparently we both have way too much time on our hands today….nice touch using Roseanne Barr on the moon, I know many people would like to send her there.

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