We Even Have Space Pollution
By James Donahue
Future adventures in space will be hazardous thanks to
human inability to keep even the outer edges of our atmosphere in order, a shocking story in space.com reveals.
The story by Leonard David, posted May 5, said that after
more than 50 years of shooting rockets, space ships, monkeys and men off into orbit, the Moon exploration of the planets and
then to build a couple of space stations, we've left so much junk out there that future missions are at great risk of collision.
"Earth orbit is muddled with human-made hazards from numerous
nations in the form of on-duty satellites, deserted spacecraft, leftover fragments of exploded rocket upper stages, even chunks
of solid rocket motor propellant down to tiny flecks of paint shedding from space hardware," David wrote.
"Toss in fast-moving separation bolts, lens caps, momentum
flywheels, nuclear reactor cores, clamp bands, auxiliary motors, launch vehicle fairings and adapter shrouds. At one point,
there was even a toothbrush reportedly zipping through the global space commons," the story said.
David reports that there are now more than 10,000 known
objects larger than four inches in diameter that are tracked by U.S. ground surveillance equipment.
An estimated 700 of them are operating satellites. The rest is discarded flotsam.
"In addition to this there are millions of tiny bits of
material, including droplets of radioactive coolant that eked out of poorly plumbed Soviet nuclear-powered spacecraft," he
Most of this stuff is found in a region of space below
1,240 miles from the surface of Earth that is called Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Every ship fired into space must pass through
this debris field and risk a chance of collision. And the way things are being done, most ships fired through that debris
field will probably leave calling cards of their own to further contaminate the area.
If you think space is so vast that all of this stuff shouldn't
matter, think again. We have had close calls with shuttle missions, one of them returned with a cracked windshield from hitting
something, and even the Hubble Space Telescope has been damaged.
The International Space Station has moved six times to
miss large tracked objects since it has been in orbit, the space shuttle changed course more than eight times to avoid collision
and operators of a German satellite were forced to fire onboard thrusters to miss oncoming debris.
Not only that, but some very large pieces of space debris
are falling back to Earth, putting people and property at risk. A 550-pound main propellant tank of the second stage of a
Delta 2 rocket fell near Georgetown, Texas
in 1997. A 156-pound piece of space debris fell near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2001.
The David story said NASA and space exploratory leaders
from other nations are now talking about cooperating in a program of traffic control in an effort to avoid what many predict
to be a major disaster looming in the future. To date, nobody is believed to have been killed or hurt from space collisions
although one French communication satellite was damaged.
The situation is somewhat like the debris now polluting
the world's oceans. We seem to lack the technology or the will to try to clean up the mess we have made in space.
And with America
and China now engaged in a new space race
for the Moon and beyond to Mars, the prospects for further contamination of the skies over our head are very high.
Lubos Perek, a noted space debris analyst at the Astronomical
Institute at the Academy of Sciences in
Prague, Czech Republic,
estimates about 5,000 tons of debris out there now.
His ominous warning: "Large debris would break up into
small pieces in course of time, thus increasing the population of dangerous fragments. It is a question if all that mass can
be left in orbit without jeopardizing future space activities."