Jan 22, 2006

Orbiting Debris A Hazard To Space Missions

Left: Image of space debris courtesy of Field of Vision website.

(Toledo, OH) The accumulated debris from human activity in space poses a significant risk to space activity, according to NASA.

An entity known as the US Space Surveillance Network tracks more than 13,000 human-made objects - with a diameter greater than four inches - orbiting the Earth. The "space junk" includes everything from rocket bodies to discarded gloves.

One of the problems with the orbiting jetsam and flotsam is the speed at which the material is traveling. Some of the objects maintain a velocity up to 17,500 MPH.

Examples of the potential damage caused by space junk are startling; the following information is from a BBC article on the phenomenon:

* A 1 mm metal chip could do as much damage as a .22-caliber long rifle bullet. Bits this size don't generally pose a large threat to spacecraft, but can erode more sensitive surfaces and disrupt missions.

* A pea-sized ball moving this fast is as dangerous as a 400-lb safe travelling at 60 mph. Debris this large may penetrate a spacecraft. If this happens through a critical component, such as the flight computer or propellant tank, this could be fatal.

* A metal sphere the size of a tennis ball is as lethal as 25 sticks of dynamite. This debris will penetrate and seriously damage a spacecraft.

Researchers are currently working on possible solutions to the problem, but funding is a perennial concern; extraterrestrial trash is certainly less glamorous than, say, designing new sateelites.


Lisa Renee said...

Makes you wonder if there are other intelligent life forms out there if they will get to the point of charging us with littering.....


Stephanie said...

You'd have thought by the time we reached space that we'd have figured out leaving garbage behind has it's unforeseen consequences.

Kind of puts the "limitlessness" of space into perspective.

historymike said...

LOL at Lisa.

Stephanie raises a good point about unforseen consequences. Given the vastness of space, designers of the earlier missions likely gave little thought to waste.

Lisa Renee said...

I'd point out that NASA is a government entity that is well known for record prices on certain products, so it doesn't surprise me that no one stopped to consider the consquences of littering up space with debris. (Okay maybe I'm becoming to cynical)

Let's just hope it doesn't cause harm to anyone, especially the Space Station since it is realistically a sitting target.

Stephanie said...

I'm just remembering the "brilliant" idea to jettison all the garbage from our over-full landfills into space...and the argument that is was impractical merely from the perspective of...um...fuel.

historymike said...

Yes, Stephanie, that's like cleaning out your car by throwing everything out the window as you drive through a national park.


Hooda Thunkit said...


It seems to me that the most efficient way to remove the debris is to vaporize it with terrestrial pulsed laser arrays triangulated on the objectionable stuff.

Triangulation should be used to minimize the chances of a destructive beam missing its’ intended target only to take something/someone out other than the space junk. However, it would still look like a “pot shot” to our nearer neighbors, maybe forcing an unintended visit from other more intelligent beings. I assume that they would be more intelligent, or they would have come calling earlier.

So far, we remain too insignificant and inconsequential to bother with.

Oh and, there’s that contamination thing (cultural and microbial)…