Each year that passes space missions in near Earth orbit (NEO) are fraught with greater danger. So comes the sobering conclusion of two of the world’s top space agencies: America’s NASA and Europe’s ESA.
So much flotsam and jetsam are now choking the region of space near Earth that even the International Space Station (ISS) has had to change its orbit to avoid disastrous collisions.
Tens of millions of pieces of junk
The space junk can be smaller than a pea or as big as defunct satellites. While a significant amount will eventually tumble back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, much of it could continue to orbit for hundreds of years. It’s now estimated that tens of millions of pieces of junk are now orbiting Earth.
The oldest known piece of junk in space is America’s Vanguard I satellite inserted into orbit back in 1958.
All the debris presents a clear and present danger to crucial satellites already in orbit and to satellites launched in the future.
Although efforts to track and plot all the debris have been underway for decades, the task is Herculean in nature and even the tiniest objects—some traveling faster than bullets—can potentially incapacitate or even destroy the ISS and future manned spacecraft.
The worrisome ‘Kessler Syndrome’
The “Kessler Syndrome” postulates that in the not-too-distant future, Mankind might become marooned on Earth…traveling into space and navigating through the debris field would be a suicide mission. The Syndrome gets its name from a former NASA employee and his colleague. Donald Kessler and Burton Cour-Palais realized that as space debris increased—from sources like damaged satellites, lost space tools, garbage tossed into orbit, and killer satellite tests—the risk of catastrophic collisions would also increase exponentially.
Eventually, as more satellites sustained damage from collisions with junk, more junk would litter NEO. Humans would become virtually cut off from space travel.
The graphic accompanying this article was created by David Shikomba of the European Space Agency. It illustrates the virtual cloud of space junk that is currently tracked as it orbits Earth. Most of the objects are chunks of metal and plastic traveling at high speeds. It’s estimated that more than 95 percent of everything circling Earth is non-functioning junk.
As the UK’s Guardian notes: “Being hit by a ‘sugar-cube’ of space debris is the equivalent of standing next to an exploding hand-grenade. And the problem is only getting worse.”
An astronaut hit by debris—even something the size of a grain of sand—could easily be killed. How? The answer lies in the fact that even a small amount of mass moving at 6,000 miles per hour (and some being tracked are estimated to be traveling at more than 26,000 miles per hour) transfers tremendous kinetic energy upon impact with incredible explosive force.
Nukes in space
But the velocity of the junk is not the only potential danger.
Traveling in low-Earth orbit (under 1,060 miles altitude) are a minimum of 13 nuclear reactor fuel cores and 32 nuclear reactors. These not only endanger space travel, but also present a risk to populated regions on Earth.
Tracking programs underfunded and overwhelmed
Although NASA has established the Orbital Debris Program Office to address the danger and the ESA has its own counterpart with the Space Situational Awareness Programme, both are underfunded and cannot keep up with the increasing amount of space junk. Adding to the woes are the millions of bits of rogue space debris so small no current technology can track it.
If a solution isn’t found, humans may be stranded on planet Earth never to return to the Moon, voyage to Mars or reach the stars.