Monday, April 2, 2012

Space junk

On 4 October 1957, that is 55 years ago, Sputnik 1 was launched from Kazakhstan to become the first artificial satellite of human history. One month later, Sputnik 2 was launched, carrying a dog named Laika on board. In September, the US tried to emulate the Soviet Union with the satellite Vanguard TV3, but an accident frustrated this attempt to launch it into orbit. However, in January 1958, four months after the launching of Sputnik 1, the first US satellite was set into orbit: Explorer 1. That was the onset of the Space Race between both nations.
The Cold War and the militaristic paranoia had at least one good consequence: increase our knowledge of the cosmos by launching a net of satellites which is useful for our communications, weather forecasts and navigation. Satellites were also used to spy and other military purposes, but the outcome was not so bad: at least we got something positive from human foolishness and warfare.
Since then, our sky is full of satellites. According to the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists), on 1 January 2012 there were 994 satellites working around our planet. These satellites belong to different countries, but the US has many of them (441), followed by Russia (101) and China (83). However, these figures do not include obsolete satellites that are still orbiting around our planet, or spare pieces drifting around. And together with many more objects orbiting around us pointlessly, to no purpose, it is the so-called orbital debris.
So now, after 50 years of the first case of space junk, it’s time to find a solution to this new type of pollution. Let’s get started with some figures.
According to the CNES, the French Spatial Agency, at least 34,000 objects larger than 10 cm have been observed through radars and telescopes, and 13,000 are monitored and inventoried. Additionally, there are some other 200,000 objects with a size from 1 to 10 cm, and 35 million objects with a size from 0.1 to 1 cm. Smaller objects are countless. Among these objects, we can find paint particles, rocket pieces or objects from spatial missions, like a glove lost by the astronaut Edward H. White or a photograph camera lost by the astronaut Michael Collins. Even if they are really small objects, they are drifting at high speed, so they can hit other satellites or spatial vehicles, or they can fall and hit someone on Earth. Being hit by a piece of falling space debris is against all odds because the space is huge, but you cannot dismiss this possibility. The French satellite CERISE, crashed against a piece of orbital debris in 1996, becoming the first object to crash in the space. Since then, other devices like the spatial telescope Hubble have been hit. And the first case of a person hit by a falling piece of space junk was Lottie Williams, who was lucky to survive to tell her story.
It may all seem nonsense. At least, that’s what we think today: the outer space is too large to be concerned by debris. But every year between 60 and 100 rockets and satellites are launched and there are more and more obsolete devices drifting, which can crash or break into pieces, resulting in more and more objects and pieces orbiting around us. Even the NASA has a project to study and control the expansion of our orbital debris.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution nobody cared for pollution because we thought that our planet was resourceful. Today we are aware that we have a problem with pollution and it may be too late to prevent the destruction of many ecosystems. Are we going to do the same with the outer space or will we realise on time and find a proper solution?

  1. Sputnik 1:
  2. Sputnik 2:
  3. Vanguard TV3:
  4. Explorer 1:
  5. The number of artificial satellites orbiting around us:
  6. The CNES, the French Spatial Agency:
  7. CNES tally of orbital debris:
  8. CERISE satellite:
  9. Lottie Williams’s case:
  10. NASA programme on orbital debris:


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