Garbage. It’s a familiar, man-made problem. On land and in the oceans. But it’s not just the land and the oceans that need a cleanup. Garbage is an orbital problem.
A Growing Problem
Accompanying the September 12, 2009 NASA Image of the Day (above) was a statement. “Approximately 19,000 manmade objects larger than 10 centimeters orbit the Earth.”
By 2013 NASA reported more than 500,000 pieces of space junk were being tracked.
According to National Geographic, as of January 2019, more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in or approximately the diameter of AAA battery), about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm (up to the length of a regular crayon or the diameter of drink coaster) and around 34,000 of pieces larger than 10 cm were estimated to be in orbit around the Earth. This amounts to close to 6,000 tons of materials in low Earth orbit.
It’s expensive to remove space debris from orbit. And there are no international space laws that require space agencies to clean up debris in LEO. So LEO is the world’s largest junk yard.
Houston. We’ve got a space junk problem.
Who Tracks Orbiting Garbage?
In cooperation with NASA, the Space Surveillance Network a group within the Department of Defense (DOD) detects, tracts, and catalogues space junk. They use a global network of telescopes to track the debris.
What Is Being Tracked
Nuts and bolts and pieces of spacecraft or satellites that have broken off are orbiting the Earth. There’s even a spatula out there!
Objects as small as 0.12 inches can be identified by ground-based radars. Examining the divots and pits on spacecraft once it returns to earth, allows scientist to estimate the size and number of smaller pieces of space junk. The smallest objects are things like paint chips and solid rocket exhaust particles.
Where is the Debris?
The debris travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph within 1,250 miles of Earth’s surface in what’s called low Earth orbit (LEO). LEO is home to a lot of satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). That’s why space junk is a concern. It’s a constant danger to the satellites and the ISS.
What Can We Do About Space Junk?
On June 20, 2018, the space station deployed the NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite into space from outside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. NanoRacks-Remove Debris used a 3D camera to map location and speed of debris and deployed a net to capture and de-orbit simulated debris up to 1m in size.
Tokyo-based Astroscale announced in October 2019 that they would launch the first commercial debris removal mission by the end of 2020. Their End-of-Life Service spacecraft will retrieve space debris and release that debris into the atmosphere.
In December 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they will launch a robotic junk collector with arms. It will blast off in 2025 and grab Vespa, a piece of space junk left by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. It will then drag Vespa to Earth’s atmosphere where both Vespa and the robotic junk collector will burn up.
Only Time Will Tell
Will these two missions be successful? There’s reason to believe they will be. If they are, companies that launch and maintain satellites may pay garbage collection fees. The first commercial garbage collectors will cleanup in more than one way.
What Might Follow?
Would companies eventually pay for these collectors to haul their satellites to a space station for repair? Maybe.
In that case, I must write faster. My story, The Repairmen, is not as far future as I had believed when I began writing it.
True, it’s not just the land and oceans that need a cleanup. But cleaning up space wasn’t a viable option until recently. Yet, if we don’t begin cleaning up our mess up there, satellites, space stations, and manned launches may become too dangerous. Let’s hope that these two ventures are successful and inspire more ideas and ventures to clean up the land, sea, air, and the space lanes of Earth.