Kicking Space Trash to the Curb
Thursday, August 2nd, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Think your place is a mess? Well, you’re not alone. Space is full of junk these days.
The good news? The European Space Agency not only wants to clean up space, it also has plans to halt our contribution to this growing mess.
How Much is Too Much?
At this moment, there are over 6,000 tons of space debris orbiting Earth, so it’s no wonder why this has become a major concern in space science and industry circles.
As it is with most trash, space junk is just plain bad for the environment, but it can also be costly. When colliding with spacecraft or satellites, debris as small as one centimeter can cause extensive damage, and even end a mission (according to a presentation last year before a United Nations working group on space debris). And, of course, cost concerns soar as most space missions these days cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
(Be sure to check out this space shuttle windshield, damaged by a paint chip, of all things.)
The Anatomy of Space Junk
NASA estimates that debris as small as a grain of salt can move at speeds of 27,535 kilometers per hour. (Think of the times you’ve been pelted by sand in high winds — times thousands.)
So where does all this debris come from? The European Space Agency (ESA) notes that of 6,000 satellites launched in the last 50 years, only about 1,000 remain operational. The others are derelict, with some breaking apart as leftover fuel or batteries explode.
In light of this growing threat, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently announced a new Clean Space initiative to “reduce the environmental effect of Europe’s space activities,” on Earth and in orbit. This initiative will solicit information from the space industry on ways to develop Clean Space technologies.
Goals of the initiative include creating more eco-friendly replacements for materials and techniques, reducing the amount of existing debris, and halting production of additional space debris. As a part of the strategy, future ESA space projects will be evaluated for environmental impact, from initial design to the anticipated end of the mission.
Taking Out the Space Trash
At a recent Clean Space workshop hosted in the Netherlands by ESA and Eurospace, participants discussed cutting production of future debris by finding controlled ways to drag lifeless satellites out of low orbit (according to ESA). And some of those methods are pretty creative.
So, the next time you’re feeling too tired to take out the trash, remember that it could be a lot harder — that junk could be floating in space thousands of miles away.
For more information on the initiative, check out ESA’s new Clean Space website.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.