Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Space Junk Threatens to Smash Us to Bits!

Image: space junk that fell to Earth on a farm in Australia in 2008. Ouch! Via: Sydney Morning Herald
Well judging by what the news has to say, there's plenty of actual space junk to keep me inspired for many more Random Space Finds posts. NASA even set up an office and full-time junk tracker to keep an eye on all that detrius. Wired has an excellent feature story on the pollution of space--at least that space immediately around our planet and the man charged with tracking it all, Donald Kessler. He wrote a paper clinching the argument for keeping one eye on the sky that painted a "nightmare scenario". Here's some choice quotes:
Spent satellites and other space trash would accumulate until crashes became inevitable. Colliding objects would shatter into countless equally dangerous fragments, setting off a chain reaction of additional crashes. “The result would be an exponential increase in the number of objects with time,” he wrote, “creating a belt of debris around the Earth.”

At age 38, Kessler had found his calling. Not that his bosses had encouraged him to look into the issue—”they didn’t like what I was finding,” he recalls. But after the paper came out, NASA set up the Orbital Debris Program Office to study the problem and put Kessler in charge. He spent the rest of his career tracking cosmic crap and forming alliances with counterparts in other nations in an effort to slow its proliferation. His description of a runaway cascade of collisions—which he predicted would happen in 30 to 40 years—became known as the Kessler syndrome.

Image: actual map of space junk orbiting our Pig Pen-like planet, via Discovery.com 

Kessler is now in his 70s and he was of course proven frighteningly correct. And just in case you were skeptical about how much space crap is floating around up there:
The operations center moved quickly to double its computer capacity. By early 2010, it was keeping a close eye on 1,000 active satellites, 3,700 inactive satellites and rocket pieces, and another 15,300 objects the size of a fist or larger—a level of awareness that revealed a much higher daily average of 75 possible collisions. And that’s ignoring the danger posed by the estimated half-million smaller pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. Too small to track from the ground, each of those tiny projectiles is capable of severely damaging a satellite.
There's even a testing range in White Sands, NM that tests how dangerous our leftovers in the black can be:
...technicians operate a cannon that uses gunpowder and pressurized hydrogen to fire plastic slugs at shields and panels. Just like real space junk, the projectiles can approach speeds of 5 miles per second. [Emphasis mine, as if it need it!]
Duck and cover folks!

1 comment:

Narmer said...

The main character in the show Dead Like Me was killed by a toilet seat from space.