The Dangers Of Debris

On November 11, the International Space Station (“ISS”) had to make an unplanned course correction. A supply ship docked to the station had to fire its rockets for about six minutes to change the station’s speed and raise its orbit slightly so the ISS could avoid striking a large piece of space debris that could have damaged the ISS and imperiled the crew of astronauts and cosmonauts on board.

Unfortunately, the space around the Earth is getting increasingly crowded. In fact, it has become a kind of junkyard up there. In the November 11 incident, the ISS dodged a part of a Chinese weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test.  It doesn’t help that governments are blasting their own satellites into smithereens, adding to the existing debris fields. The article linked above notes that the 2007 missile test smashed the Chinese weather satellite “into more than 3,500 pieces of debris, most of which are still orbiting” and many of which “have now fallen into the ISS’s orbital region.”

And governments are continuing to use their satellites for target practice, notwithstanding the risks. Just this week, the Russian government conducted a missile tests on one of its old satellites that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that required the crew of the ISS to take shelter in their return ships. When the United States protested what it called a “dangerous and irresponsible” missile test, the Russians blithely replied that they were tracking the debris it created and claimed that the safety of the ISS crew was their “main priority.” Of course, in this case actions speak a lot louder than words.

Incidentally, the target for the Russian missile strike was an intelligence satellite that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched in 1982 that has been inoperative for decades. When you consider all of the old satellites that are in orbit around Earth, you realize it’s a target-rich environment for trigger-happy governments. And the overcrowding and debris problem gets worse with every new launch of a communications satellite to support cellphone and internet services.

We’ve got to figure out a way to address the space debris problem so the ISS, and the space stations to come, aren’t unnecessarily put in danger. Step one would be to get governments to address to stop blasting their own old satellites and littering the orbital pathways with dangerous junk. Step two would be to reach agreement on an approach to retrieving the junk and defunct satellites and safely returning them to Earth. With all of the space-related activity that has been occurring recently, you’d think that governments could put their missiles aside for a while and reach agreement on a way to clear the near-Earth space and allow everyone to use it.

Keep Your Eyes On The Skies

It’s bad enough that the Earth’s atmosphere is clogged with obsolete satellites and space junk of various shapes and sizes.  Now we are being warned that some of this stuff is going to come plunging to the ground as orbits decay and the inexorable tug of the Earth’s gravity becomes irresistible.

NASA is warning that the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite — which weighs 6.5 tons — is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled fall in late September or early October.  Of course, much of the satellite is expected to burn up on re-entry, but some of its component parts are predicted to survive and strike the Earth’s surface.

NASA officials note that, even after decades of re-entering debris raining onto the Earth’s surface, there are no confirmed reports of any actual injuries to people caused by the fall of fiery remnants of satellites gone by.  Even Skylab, the much larger space laboratory that plunged to Earth in 1979 — and became the butt of many jokes, including John Belushi’s classic piece on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, below — fell into the Pacific Ocean and remote parts of Australia without causing any apparent harm to humans.

Still, at times like this I’m glad that the Earth’s surface is mostly ocean.


Space Littering

There is so much junk orbiting Earth that it poses hazards to navigation in space, according to a study by the National Research Council.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks more than 16,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth.  The junk includes spent rocket bodies, unused satellites, and other discarded materials — all of which are circling the globe at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour.  A lot of the debris was generated when the Chinese government unwisely used a discarded weather satellite as a target for an anti-satellite missile test. There already have been space collisions, and experts fear that the amount of junk will cause even more crashes and damage to vehicles exiting and entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine — there were no man-made objects in Earth orbit until the Russians launched Sputnik in the late 1950s, and only five decades later we have reached a “tipping point” of space debris.  Human beings apparently are just inveterate litterbugs, no matter where they go.  Where is Iron Eyes Cody when we really need him?