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‘Space Junk’ Could Be Catastrophic

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The amount of debris hurtling around in space is reaching alarming quantities and the risk of it falling to Earth increasing

Back in August a giant Proton rocket failed to reach its intended orbit and its passengers, a pair of DTH communication satellites, were lost forever. In mid-October the BRIX-M upper stage of the rocket exploded. By October 25 the authorities had calculated that the failure added a worrying 500 pieces of larger space junk, and probably hundreds more smaller pieces not observable on radar. This new batch of space junk has added to the thousands of other parts hurtling around our planet and creasing very real risks for rocket launches, and orbiting satellites such as the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Telescope and even GPS and other low and mid-Earth orbiting craft.

A NASA diagram of tracked space junk in Low Earth Orbit

A NASA diagram of tracked space junk in Low Earth Orbit

By and large geostationary satellites are immune from these threats given their extremely high orbits, but the risk of celestial collision is extremely real for the rocket launches that have to penetrate this ‘junk cloud’ immediately after launch and while on their way to GEO orbit.

NASA reckons there are about 21,000 pieces of space junk in orbit larger than 10cm (4in) across, and many, many more pieces smaller than 10cm; in fact, NASA says there are “millions” of pieces smaller than 1cm hurtling around. The danger of one screw or nut or tiny segment of metal hurtling towards the ISS doesn’t bear thinking about. NASA says that the ISS has frequently had to fire up its on-board engines in order to “miss” potential space junk collisions. This uses up precious fuel and potentially threatens scientific work that might be in progress when an emergency is declared. The good news is that the threat is detected. The bad news is that even a small flying missile, can arrive undetected and take off a Solar Panel, or penetrate the ISS living quarters with devastating results.

This graph shows altitude and position of space caused by the deliberate destruction of one of their satellites, measured in km above the Earth, and minutes following the explosion.

This graph shows altitude and position of space caused by the deliberate destruction of one of their satellites, measured in km above the Earth, and minutes following the explosion.

Collision course

The International Space Station travels at about 414 kilometers (257 miles) above the Earth and its living quarters and principle technology segments are protected by a thin ‘meteor bumper’ or Whipple Shield, designed to protect crew and components but not all parts of a satellite can be protected in this way. The very thin shield works on the basis that a micro-meteorite (or tiny piece of space junk) would hit the risk to the actual craft. Solar panels, for example, are especially vulnerable.

Indeed, it isn’t just exploding rockets that can do the damage. Back in 2007 China deliberately sent a rocket up to destroy one of its own satellites!

Key to understanding the threat from space junk is the ‘Kessler syndrome’, a formula that calculates the collision risk in space (and even between planetary objects).  The theory is simple enough: over time all such parts diminish b falling to Earth or the planet they are orbiting and burning up. The Donald Kessler work, initially focusing on the threats to spacecraft by the Asteroid Belt in deep space, suggested that such risks to damage could be mitigated and predicted. His theory has subsequently been proven. Kessler’s work, and subsequent expert study, can predict with accuracy the length of time it takes for these hundreds of pieces from a single impact to decay and fall to Earth.

This is all well and good but the problem is – as the October Proton launch proved – as fast as older object are decaying we are creating new problems. Indeed, some experts now suggest that some parts of our satellite orbital regions are hugely dangerous. By the end of the 1990s it was calculated that of some 28,000 piece of largish space junk identified the majority had decayed and fallen to Earth, leaving around 8,500 in orbit. That number has been steadily increasing. By 2005 it stood at 13,000 objects. By 2006 it had leapt to 19,000 objects because of a satellite collision in space and by last year the number had grown to 22,000 items sufficiently large to be tracked from Earth. And millions of piece too small to be tracked!

The risks are truly immense. NASA has calculated that a small part, weighing no more than 1kg travelling at the not unreasonable speed of 10km/s would have sufficient impact mass to totally destroy a one tonne satellite. The USA’s National Academy of Sciences now suggests that two bands are now extremely risky for satellite: the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) band of 900-1,000kms, and the band around 1,500kms up in space.

As you rise further away from Earth and get into GEO territory the risks get less, but are more difficult to track. For example, from Earth we can only ‘measure’ by radar objects that are about one meter across. And there’s a lot of junk up there still. One set of examples is Russian RORSAT programmer, which saw satellites sent up in the 1970s and 1980s. When they reached the end of their useful life most were sent high into a safe, ‘graveyard’ orbit. But some weren’t. And each of these satellites has on board a risk that one of these will suffer a leak to its coolant reactor and release its damaging material.

Into orbit

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