Skip to comments.Mounting space junk threatens chain reaction
Posted on 02/07/2007 5:13:16 PM PST by Fitzcarraldo
For decades, space experts have worried that a speeding bit of orbital debris might one day smash a large spacecraft into hundreds of pieces and start a chain reaction, a slow cascade of collisions that would expand for centuries, spreading chaos through the heavens.
In the past decade or so, as scientists came to agree that the number of objects in orbit had surpassed a critical mass - or, in their terms, the critical spatial density, the point at which a chain reaction becomes inevitable - they grew more anxious.
Early this year, after a half- century of growth, the federal list of detectable objects (4 inches wide or larger) reached 10,000, including dead satellites, spent rocket stages, a camera, a hand tool and junkyards of whirling debris left over from chance explosions and destructive tests.
Now, experts say, China's test Jan. 11 of an anti-satellite rocket that shattered an old satellite into hundreds of large fragments means the chain reaction will most likely start sooner.
If their predictions are right, the cascade could put billions of dollars' worth of advanced satellites at risk and eventually threaten to limit humanity's reach for the stars.
Federal and private experts say early estimates of 800 pieces of detectable debris from the shattering of the satellite will grow to nearly 1,000 as observations continue by tracking radars and space cameras. At either number, it is the worst such episode.
Today, next year or next decade, some piece of whirling debris will start the cascade, experts say.
"It's inevitable," said Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at NASA. "A significant piece of debris will run into an old rocket body, and that will create more debris. It's a bad situation."
Geoffrey Forden, an arms expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is analyzing the Chinese satellite debris, said China perhaps failed to realize the magnitude of the test's indirect hazards.
Forden suggested that Chinese engineers might have understood the risks but failed to communicate them. In China, he said, "the decision process is still so opaque that maybe they didn't know who to talk to."
In April, Beijing is to play host to the annual meeting of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee.
Donald Kessler, a former head of NASA's orbital-debris program and a pioneer analyst of the space threat, said Chinese officials at the forum would probably feel "some embarrassment."
Cascade warnings began as early as 1978. Kessler and his NASA colleague, Burton Cour- Palais, wrote that speeding junk that formed more junk would produce "an exponential increase in the number of objects with time, creating a belt of debris around the Earth."
A solution to the cascade threat has been suggested, but it is costly. Johnson of NASA has argued that the only sure answer was environmental remediation, including the removal of large objects from orbit.
Well it does get lonely out there
she was walking all alone down the street in the alley her name was sally she never saw it when she was hit by space junk in new york miami beach heavy metal fell in cuba angola saudi arabia on xmas eve said norad a soviet sputnik hit africa india venezuela (in texas kansas) it's falling fast peru too it keeps coming and now i'm mad about space junk i'm all burned out about space junk oooh walk & talk about space junk it smashed my baby's head and now my sally's dead
I think China understands the risks just fine. The also understand that we don't see our astronauts as expendable and may be leery about putting them in an increasingly dangerous environment. They on the other hand are more willing to take the risk with the lives of their astronauts.
China could go for the shotgun effect and just send up exploding rockets full of ball bearings in proximity to target satellites. I think their attitude would be denial of space to everyone, including themselves if it came to world conflict.
It doesn't pay to be a litter bug - even in space.
Humans are such slobs ... .
That's my point about China not being as leery about risking the lives of their astronauts. What we see as a denial of space for us may be seen as an opportunity for them.
Our version of the Rings of Saturn.
Blind spy satellites and GPS in low earth orbit, much mischief they can do.
Ultimately any country that wants to get into the business of launching satellites, traveling to outerspace, or even sending some low altitude ICBMs to their enemies is going to have to learn how to dispose of debris in the way, or simply give it up.
This would not affect the surface of the Earth, just damage and destroy satellites. At this point, geosynchronous satellites are safe.
And armor them.
We need to send the "Quark" to clean up the mess.
Since most (all?) of the junk is metallic, how about an orbiting supermagnet?
United Galactic Sanitation Patrol ship to the rescue.