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The Bat Cave EAR

Evie is an aeorspace engineer and will blog about current events in various fields including but not limited to: Space, Astronomy, Genetics, Biology, Green Energy, Neuroscience, Physics, Quantum Physics, Evolution, Environmental issues, Engineering.. Pretty much anything and everything that catches her eye. Stay tuned! Thoughts, comments, requests – always welcomed!

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

You may be asking yourself what is this space junk I speak of, and why am I bothering you with this.. Well, I am glad you asked!

Space Junk is pretty much anything that is left over, discarded, or no longer functioning, that happens to orbit our little globe here.

It can be debris from a space collision, left over parts from rockets, satellites, launch vehicles. Any object that is left adrift, floating in space in our immediate vicinity.

As you may be aware, the growing problem of space junk is becoming more real with every new launch that occurs.

You see, every single satellite system, shuttle mission, or top secret government experiment that is launched into space, requires (at this point) rockets to get there.

As they ascend and maneuver themselves into their target position, they shed large amounts of solid components that have served their purpose, and are no longer required. These can be burned out motor cases, or smaller connecting rings that held the separate stages of the rockets together, or even nuts and bolts that have been ejected.

These shed components, they don’t go anywhere.. they just hang out in orbit for a really really long time, till they eventually come crashing down to Earth. Usually burning up and disintegrating in the atmosphere long before they become a threat to those on the planet – depending on their size and composition of course.

Ok, well, if they just burn up in the atmosphere, what’s the problem, you ask?

The problem is, during that really really long time – which by the way, is years at the very least, but could be decades or even centuries, depending on the altitude the junk is located in – while they ARE in orbit, they pose a huge threat to anything and everything else that happens to be in orbit too.

These rogue parts are moving really really fast.. like 28,000 km/hr fast. If one were to happen along the path you unluckily happened to be on.. well then in essence, it would be similar to if you were to step in the path of a speeding bullet. Not so good for you..

If one of these pieces of junk were to hit a functioning satellite, it would probably not be functioning for much longer. And worse, if a piece of junk were to hit a manned mission, like the International Space Station, or the shuttle, for instance.. then people could easily die. No joke. This is serious stuff.

As you may have guessed, by now there is a huge number of these threats out there. It is estimated that we’ve got oh, about 600,000 junk pieces floating about. And only roughly 20,000 of them can be tracked at this time. So this obviously leaves quite a few potential threats entirely unaccounted for. Kinda scary if you ask me.

Look at this picture -
This was an experiment done by the European Space Agency (ESA) here on Earth. They took that tiny ball you see there, it’s 1.2 cm in diameter, made of aluminum, and they flung it at that solid aluminum block at a speed just under 25,000 km/hr. All that damage you see there, was made by that one tiny ball. And that's at several thousand km/hr less than typical junk velocity.

That is nuts. Can you imagine what would have happened to that block if the tiny ball we’re even just a little bit bigger? Bad things my friends, bad things. And not the good kind of bad things like True Blood would have you believe.

Currently the International Space Station can only withstand a hit at those velocities by objects that are no bigger than 1cm in diameter.

Our global leaders have recently (finally) woken up to the seriousness of this situation, and many countries are working on tracking systems that can detect and keep track of smaller junk pieces. You saw that picture, even a 1 cm object can cause some serious damage.

Engineers are working on building better protective shields for the International Space Station (ISS), so that it will be able to withstand larger hits.

Not too long ago a tracked debris object got too close to the ISS for comfort. All personnel on board at the time were evacuated.You can imagine that’s not an easy process to carry out.

You'd have to drop whatever you were working on, which is probably important. You'd have to get all suited up with your spacesuit asap, and proceed through the air lock. At which point, you'd seat yourself in your shuttle, or capsule, ready to be propelled back to Earth or at least out of danger at any moment.

Then you'd wait.. and wait.. and wait.. till hopefully the threat would pass around you, and drift off to a safe distance. Till the next time it comes around that is. And that’s what happens on a good day!

My point is, it would appear that we have treated our orbital space, much as we have our backyard here on Earth – As a big garbage dump. We can’t do that any longer. Not in orbit and not on Earth. It’s just not working out for us to keep behaving in such a short-sighted manner.

One of my many side projects that I often toy with and think about, is creating a space-junk-collecting-ship. One that would access these debris tracking systems, and do a lot of fancy math to determine, based on speed, location, size, fuel and cost, which objects to go after first.

Once collected, the objects – rather than being disintegrated in the atmosphere, and in effect, wasted – would be towed to the Moon. And either held in a parking orbit, or brought down to the surface to be reused or recycled.

But that’s a topic for a future blog post.


Watch this vid to see the experts talk about the space junk situation-


For more information, check out these links-

Quick answers Orbital Debris FAQ by NASA

Great review, very easy to read and understand by the University of Southampton School of Engineering Sciences

And of course Space Debris by Wikipedia




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Blog Comments

Washington University School of Medicine
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That ball experiment is quite sobering. Yikes!

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Yea..  quite the vivid image.. Yikes indeed!

UC Davis
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Holy crap, that's some scary stuff.  Glad they are starting to do something about it, I'm surprised something bad hasn't already happened.  Perhaps they should think about sending people on community service up there to pick up space junk, they could wear those orange bibs over their space suits!? No?

Washington University School of Medicine
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Good idea! In reality, though, are there currently viable options for dealing with the junk?

Chris Morrell

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Glad to hear I'm not the only person who thinks it would be cool to make a roomba for the spacejunk whizzing about above our heads. Surely there must be some resuable stuff up there or we could at least have a little fun pelting the moon with things.

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@Jane - Hey, I'd be more than happy to volunteer for that job! Orange Space suit and all.

There have been some close calls, I'm sure there are plenty more that just don't make their way to the public eye. And of course with each collision, we just get a larger number of smaller objects on different trajectories..

@Nikki - As far as I know, there is no viable way remove the stuff right now. It's not that the technology can't be made.. it's the price tag. And sadly, until something huge comes along and kills some people, or is considered to be national security threat, it probably will remain on the back burner.

@Chris - There's no doubt at some point we will have a Moon base (if we don't already), and that 'junk' can be really useful. I mean it is already in orbit.. the money to send it there has already been spent, so why not re-use it. Just common sense.

This was a good post from last year - Beware Of Space Junk: Global Warming Isn’t the Only Major Environmental Problem

UC Davis
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I'd go up to the moon and collect space junk for free.  It wouldn't even have to be community service enforced.  It would be an amazing experience. In fact if they were making space travel part of community service I would consider becoming a petty thief and getting assigned some of that community service!

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See, there is so much enthusiasm when it comes to clearing space junk, we really need to figure out a way to harness that excitement and use it to actually get the job done. If you got any thoughts, I’d be more than happy to hear them :)

Let’s make it happen!

Silwin Pereira

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Everyone keeps taking about it but no one does nothing. This mission to clear ll the space junk would cost billions but this should be something that needs to be undertaken by all the countries collectively as all of them start using outer space for thier own advantage.


Lets do it now!

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