Space Litter: When does the garbage pick up truck come?

Space Litter: When does the garbage pick up truck come?

It’s getting crowded up there: 15,000 pieces of junk plus 1000 active satellites, and counting.

• Sources include defunct satellites, rocket stages used to place satellites in orbit, bolts and other mission-related debris, and fragments from the intentional or accidental breakup of large objects. Also, the rare failed spacecraft that has stalled in orbit, such as the Russian Phobos–Grunt probe that just crashed to earth.

• The single largest debris generating event was in 2007, when China destroyed its polar orbiting satellite with a missile, resulting in 3000 trackable objects and 150,000 fragments of >1 cm size.The accidental collision of the Russian Cosmos 2251 and US Iridium 33 satellites in 2009 was responsible for another jump in space debris in 2009. Together, these two events effectively wiped out all space debris mitigation efforts until then (see graph, image 2).

• The risk of collision and damage at low earth orbit (<2000 km) is now at a few percent, comparable to other types of satellite failure like electrical defects. The Kessler syndrome describes a potential domino effect or feedback runaway ( Space elevators, listed in the recent BBC poll as one of the top 20 predictions for the next 100 years, would almost certainly intersect with this debris.

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40 Responses to Space Litter: When does the garbage pick up truck come?

  1. Maybe the junk should be sent back into our atmosphere to be,

    Recycle reuse repurpose!!!!

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Willem De Bruyn , the recycling pick-up trucks just rolled by our home this morning..I should have directed them upwards! 😉

  3. Rajini Rao Reminds me of the movie “The Andromeda Strain” …we are just inviting trouble …besides all the junk that is collecting 🙂

  4. Lindy Asimus says:

    And some think we have a right to mess up this planet and then find another to go ruin.

  5. Yet another reason why the American government won’t let me take a vacation in orbit before I die – The threat of someone blowing up enough satellites to make space completely inaccessible. What a waste.

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Richard Healy , you may not be able to vacation up there while alive, but you can have your ashes tossed out to add to the junk 😉 I recall that bits of Scotty (Star Trek) are still orbiting.

  7. look what we’ve done to the oceans, it’s no surprise we treat space the same way!

  8. Rajini Rao Sounds like a good tragic story – my daughter carrying on my dream just to be killed in orbit by my ashes 😉

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Could be a blockbuster disaster movie theme (in 3D)! Hollywood hasn’t exploited space collisions yet has it? 😉

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Suzanne Catty , good parallels to the gyres that Marc Ponomareff was telling me about recently 😦

  11. Jay Cross says:

    I don’t often read about the good choice that the Russians made putting the Phobos-Grunt parking orbit so low. Likewise the Chinese are also keeping things where they will fall into the atmosphere soon. This spacejunk is mostly old stuff. Cleaning it up is important… thankfully we’re not adding new stuff to the heap very rapidly.

  12. Rajini Rao

    It’s been covered in anime at least:

    I recall reading several stories from Ben Bova and Ray Bradbury (I think) dealing with orbital debris. As for Hollywood – tragedies don’t play well in America. Astronaut Farmer was a complete flop too. Bah.

    I’d take a job cleaning up space junk if it meant I could get into orbit!

  13. Lindy Asimus says:

    I’d like to see a movie of Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. Since we have wandered into Hollywood and sci fi territory 😉

    Maybe all this space litter will glomp together like the plastic ‘island’ polluting the sea.

  14. Bill Marshall at NASA Ames Research Center is going to propel it all gently out of orbit by ablating the dark parts with a giant Navy free electron laser that you’re probably not supposed to know about.

  15. Lindy Asimus there are actually 5 plastic ‘islands’

  16. Lindy Asimus says:

    Suzanne Catty Let me update then – Maybe all this space litter will glomp together like the five plastic ‘island’s polluting the sea.

  17. James Salsman The problem, as usual, isn’t a lack of practicable ideas it’s political.

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    Chris Gill , you may be interested in the paper that James Salsman referred to in his link (above). Apparently, the Kessler syndrome of cascading debris-debris collisions is thought to already be occurring at certain orbits, generating a debris belt.

  19. Sabin Iacob says:

    Patrick Armstrong um, it’s tens of thousands small pieces spread over a huge volume, they’re not easy to gather

    the danger to spacecraft is mostly statistical: given enough time on orbit, junk encounter chances get bigger

  20. Lindy Asimus says:

    Ah just wait till you get the space equivalent of the Hummer up there. No worries – what’s a bit more pollution? (Not like there is much consideration of it here, no reason to think those who want to mine asteroids are going to start becoming ecologically conscious. It will be Haliburton Space and the like.

  21. Tom Lee says:

    People spending money sending stuff into space they didn’t budget the money to take care of space debris, or just didn’t bother. Now everybody is sending satellite and rockets into orbit, including China. Look at the Chinese how they take care of their pollution problems on their soil to expect how they will take care of their space junks. Perhaps space engineers may be thinking about future Star wars super laser beam to zap out space debris then using magnetic vacuum suction to clean the mess up. There are always solutions if there are will.

  22. Sabin Iacob says:

    … or about super strong and light armour so your spacecraft doesn’t get pierced by rivets travelling at orbital speeds 🙂

  23. Rajini Rao says:

    Sabin Iacob , how about Mithril (Hobbit armor)? 🙂

  24. Lindy Asimus says:

    Tom Lee that mentality of acting without thought of consequences is where we need to make some changes in attitude. In space, on Earth it is all the same inattention to what we do with stuff. Story of Stuff, Full Version; How Things Work, About Stuff

  25. Is the distribution in that picture supposed to be accurate? I would be very surprised if the density of the debris were as high at the poles as it is at the equator. Polar orbits are much more expensive and less efficient to obtain than equtorial, so they aren’t used unless it is necessary and I would expect much lower density there.

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Hey stefan jeffers , I did a google image search for “space debris” and most variations looked like this one. I think the Chinese satellite that was blown up was on a polar orbit. The 15,000 number refers to the ones being actively tracked.

  27. Lindy Asimus says:

    I wondered how they account for each item… Whose job is that?

  28. Rajini Rao says:

    Lindy Asimus , according to the article I cited, these are “large objects tracked by U.S. military sensors and listed in the official government catalogue”. There is also mention of an Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) that was formed in the mid-90’s.

  29. Lindy Asimus says:

    So from observation and recording, not adding to the tally as they launch more of their own stuff there. Presumably some of that debris would be worth a lot were it salvaged – or not. Anyone know?

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    Lindy Asimus , my husband works on geostationary satellites for NASA so I asked him. He says that there are detailed end of life plans for everything that goes up. The polar ones reenter atmosphere and fall back to earth, others are shot up out of the way. From the graph, it looks like things were in reasonable control until the Chinese blew up their satellite..generally considered to be a dumb move. The accidental collision did not help either. So, to be fair, everything that goes up from NASA anyway is planned out. I don’t know if the debris is worth salvaging..probably not. My guess is that it is more of a hazard than of value.

  31. Lindy Asimus says:

    Thanks Rajini Rao How great to have an expert to shed light on the question. This G+ think might catch on! 😉

  32. Is any of this debris is visible from Earth? If yes, do amateur astronomers track it? Any links to help me point my telescope in the right direction to view these would be great.

    How do they estimate (count?) the number of debris objects?

  33. Interesting point,Rajini Rao about the Chinese orbit. That puts a whole new light on my polar density question. In fact, the picture does seem to show a little higher density right at the poles, which is what initially made me wonder. However, not to belabor the point, but that would still be somewhat mysterious (perhaps to me alone :-), because such a higher density right at the poles would seem to indicate that there should be a band of higher density down the front of the sphere. Perhaps orbital mechanics is just that unintuitive for me.

    Anyway, here is a diagram showing the debris orbits for that Chinese satellite, which confirms that it was a polar orbit:

  34. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, stefan jeffers , although I could only get a glimpse of a stunning image before Wiki blacked it out. I’ll try again tomorrow.

  35. Rajini Rao says:

    Sreedhara Voleti , what do you mean “it is not that important”? Your comment is unclear.

  36. Rajini Rao says:

    Sreedhara Voleti Clearly it is of great importance, since every trackable fragment must be accounted for and there are studies in progress on technological solutions to the accumulation of debris. At the speeds they travel, even a small 1 cm fragment can have the effect of a bullet. The risk of encountering debris are being factored into satellite failure probability. Obviously, this is a major concern to NASA and other space agencies. As I mentioned in the post above, satellites have end of life plans that address removal from orbit in order to make space for future satellites.

  37. Sreedhara Voleti, Rajini Rao The world’s militaries seem to think satellites are pretty important too. Who knows what kind of weapons are in orbit? A misfire could unintentionally start a war.

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Richard Healy , exactly right. That’s why the fragments are being tracked by the US military 🙂

  39. Brian Holmes says:

    Don’t forget the value of stealth, hidden amongst the junk.

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