FOR THE WEEK OF MAR. 19, 2018
U.S. and others explore ways to reduce space clutter that poses risks in orbit
Read about another environmental concern (down here on Earth) and describe it.
Share a quote or fact from other science or technology coverage.
Pick an article from a distant place, though closer than space obit, and tell why it's in the news.
A rocket that sent the first satellite into space from Russia in 1957 became Earth's first piece of man-made space junk when it released Sputnik into orbit and turned into useless debris, circling the planet until it broke up and fell back into our atmosphere. Sixty-one years later, spent rockets, old satellites and fragments from collisions of those castoffs clutter low-Earth orbits and worry scientists. Many pieces of looping junk, which orbit at speeds up to 17,000 miles per hour, are big enough to seriously ding working satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.
Since Sputnik, America, Russia, Britain, China, India and others have launched thousands of satellites for communication, navigation, weather forecasts, research, photography and national security. And in an era of smaller satellites – some just the size of a food can – many thousands more are set to launch to low-Earth orbit in coming years. Our government has two offices – one at the NASA space agency and the other at the military's U.S. Strategic Command – that track 24,000 objects of varied size.
New satellites are supposed to be designed for a lifespan of about 25 years before burning up in the atmosphere. Proposed remedies for existing trash include using magnets to draw old satellites into "graveyard obits" away from working craft. Researchers also explore more dramatic methods, such as sending robotic spacecraft to grab large objects with a harpoon-like hook, deploying giant nets to collect the waste and using destruction methods to pulverize them into less risky bits that fall from orbit and burn up from the heat of atmospheric re-entry. In 2007, China hit one of its inoperative weather satellites with a missile, creating smaller bits of debris. A new research paper from China's Air Force Engineering University, based on a simulation test, describes how space garbage could be zapped by space-based lasers to reduce its size. Newsweek magazine calls that "an audacious proposal," and it's one that makes U.S. officials skittish. "They're building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies," Air Force Gen. John Hyten warned last year. "We cannot allow that to happen."
Engineer says: "The problem might make some regions of space unusable in the future, and that would impact everybody — everybody who uses a mobile phone, who gets television, who relies on weather forecasts." – Holger Krag, European Space Agency specialist
U.S. Air Force says: "They've [China] been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the earth in space – jamming weapons, laser weapons." – Gen. John Hyten on CNN
British specialist: "For some people, space debris is one of these things that is out of sight, out of mind. But from my perspective, it is one of the worst environmental catastrophes that we have encountered." – Hugh Lewis, aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton (United Kingdom)
Front Page Talking Points Archive