Building the World

SPACE: Debris


“Space Debris” Image: NASA Debris-GEO1280, 2005. Image: public domain. wikimedia and

Space just got more crowded, and dangerous. When Russia shot at one of its older, Soviet-era, satellites (Kosmos-1408 had been orbiting Earth since 1982)  to test a space weapon, the hit on the target blasted over 1,500 shards of debris into space. While other nations quickly condemned the test, China, India, and the US have also tested antisatellite missiles: the practice is so established that it has its own acronym: ASAT.

“Animation of GPS satellite’s orbit from 15 May 2013 to 6 September 2018” by Phoenix7777, 2018. Based on data of NASA and JPL. Image: wikimedia commons. Included here with appreciation to Phoenix7777.

Why is space debris a problem? At 17,500 miles per hour, even a paint chip becomes a lethal weapon. There are more than 100 million pieces of space junk bigger than one millimeter, with 27,000 larger than a softball (NASA 2021) and therefore more dangerous. There is no current method for vacuuming up space junk: some developing innovations include giant nets to capture shards as demonstrated by the RemoveDEBRIS or shoving devices that could push the pieces high enough into the distant atmosphere where they could safely disintegrate.

If space debris hit the cupola of the International Space Station, there could be great danger. In 2021, ISS astronauts were commanded to take cover during the ASAT test. Photograph by Scott Kelly, astronaut, 4 June 2015. Image courtesy of NASA, included with appreciation to Scott Kelly.

When KOSMOS-1408 disintegrated into flying debris, International Space Station astronauts received warnings to duck and cover. No harm occurred – this time. But collisions with space junk could destroy satellites, space stations, and space vehicles: crashes between orbiting debris chunks are also ominous possibilities that grow, as orbiting pieces increase, into probabilities. NASA and US Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network tracks 8,000 pieces most likely to cause problems.

“Dome of Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory,” by Coneslayer 2007. Image: wikimedia.

Space satellites began with Sputnik, proliferated with COMSAT, and now number 3,372 as of January 2021, with 1,897 belonging to the US. Want to see some celestial traffic? In Massachusetts, visit the Gilliland Observatory at the Museum of Science. Harvard College Observatory, part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, offers options. University of Massachusetts Lowell hosts viewing from the Schueller Astronomical Observatory. Or, visit one of the 25 best observatories in the US for an out-of-this-world vacation.

Grush, Loren. “Satellite uses giant net to practice capturing space junk.” 19 September 2018. The Verge.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Heilweil, Rebecca. “The space debris problem is getting dangerous.” 16 November 2021. Recode.

NASA. “Space Debris and Human Spacecraft.” 26 May 2021.

RemoveDEBRIS. University of Surrey, UK.

SpaceX. “Starlink Satellite Launch.” VIDEO

University of Massachusetts Lowell. Schueller Astronomical Observatory.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Un

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