We Have Even Polluted Space
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 report by the National Research Council and published
in the Internet journal Space has revealed.
The report, published in September, 2011, warned “there
is so much junk in space that collisions could start to increase exponentially, leading to a continuously growing pile of
rubble in orbit.”
An earlier story by Leonard David explained 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.
NASA reports that there are now more than 22,000 known objects
larger than four inches in diameter that are tracked by U.S. ground surveillance equipment. An estimated 3000 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," David
All of this stuff is traveling at such high speed that a
collision with a manned space flight could cause significant damage if not total destruction. The problem is so severe that
the International Space Station carries special escape capsules for the live-in astronauts in the event of a strike by a roaming
chunk of space debris. The five-man crew was directed to take refuge in the capsules on March 23 when a discarded piece of
a Russian rocket came too close.
The Space Station also has firing rockets making it possible
for the crew to move it out of harm’s way if a possible collision is detected in time. In this case there wasn’t
enough time to move the station.
The 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.
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.
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
A Russian communication satellite that misfired earlier
this year went into the wrong orbit and crashed back to earth, landing somewhere in the Northern Pacific.
Last fall a NASA Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite that
operated from 1991 to 1995 crashed to Earth. Nobody knew just where it landed but some believe it also crashed in the Pacific
Ocean somewhere off the Canadian coast.
Many remember when Russia’s Mir space station was
allowed to crash in a remote part of the ocean in 2001.
Some reports state that an estimated 6,000 objects have
fallen out of the sky, sometimes landing close to buildings and human activity.
Most of this junk 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 leave
calling cards of their own to further contaminate the area.
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, Russia 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 6,000 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."