For more than six decades, humans have been launching spacecraft into low-Earth orbit and out into the universe, including satellites that provide GPS and weather forecasting down on Earth, but they have limited lifespans.

After a spacecraft is no longer serving a purpose, it becomes junk.

On a recent episode of “Space Curious,” we talked to experts who know a lot about space junk, and what challenges humans face in cleaning up the messes we make.

Daniel Batcheldor is the former head of aerospace physics and space sciences at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. As an astrophysicist, Batcheldor said when people think of space debris, they might be picturing a scene out of the 2008 Pixar movie “Wally.”

“One of the most vivid examples that we have is, at the beginning of the movie ’Wally,’ where a spacecraft has to punch through all of this really thick debris in low-Earth orbit and get through that,” Batcheldor said. “And one thing that these, these movies and TV shows fail to, to convey properly is the, the size of space. And so whilst we say ’space debris,’ it’s not like there’s hundreds and hundreds of objects all crammed together or creating a huge problem. Space is big, and the separations between these pieces of space debris are quite large.”

Batcheldor said most space debris, or space junk, is tracked and right now not posing a danger to any new missions.

“We’re very, we’re quite good at tracking where these pieces of debris are, or where the satellites are,” Batcheldor said. “It could be 50, 100, 200, 400, 500, 1,000 years from now, right? But at some point, it’s going to become a problem.”

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While space is very big, many spacecraft need to be in the same real estate — low-Earth orbit — to provide the services we rely on around the globe. This is the area most concentrated with space debris, according to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office.

The Orbital Debris Program Office, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, leads the development of national and international policies and technology focused on mitigating debris risks. According to the ODPO, there are about 500,000 marble-sized debris objects predicted to be in Earth’s orbit and more than 1 million objects less than 1 milometer or smaller.

To get ahead of the problem, there are standards of practice in the U.S. and among other countries with space programs that determine how long a satellite can be in orbit before it needs to de-orbit.

The United Nations’ Office for Outer Space Affairs is the coordinating body working to prevent the creation of space debris — and the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, has been leading efforts through international workshops to get a handle on how to coordinate satellite repair and space debris removal.

Private companies and researchers are also developing technology to do something about capturing pieces of space debris to clean up low-Earth orbit, which, as it turns out, is pretty complicated.

This graphic from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office shows the …read more

Source:: News Headlines


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