Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Solar System's biggest junk yard

Each white dot represents an individual piece of tracked orbital debris. This image shows the Low Earth Orbit, which is the region from the Earth’s surface to 1,240 miles and contains the most space junk.

You remember when you read stories of gallant ship captains launching on a new mission into outer space? There was never any mention of watching out for garbage. But looking at the image above, the real adventure and danger is the first 1200 miles! Asteroid belt be damned - our own back yard is so choked with trash that it's a wonder we can sail anywhere!

I know that the average reader here understands the problem, but do we clearly understand the magnitude? There are tens of millions of pieces of rubbish there. Some of the pieces are rocks and dust from passing comets, but most of them are man-made and called “orbital debris”.

From the Science News article:
  • There are some unusual things up there, like a camera that floated away from astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams in December 2006. Other astronauts have lost tools like wrenches and screwdrivers. In 1965 astronaut Ed White even lost a spare glove. Most of the junk, however, comes from large satellites and rockets that fell apart after they stopped working.

  • Together, all the space junk would weigh about 11 million pounds on Earth, or more than 3,000 cars. The largest piece is a part of a rocket about the size of a minivan.
And its all deadly. Have you seen this pic? A tiny fleck of paint struck and cracked one window of the space shuttle Challenger while it was in space in 1983.

And you would think that because we are aware of the problem it is under control and not worsening. Ha! In 2007, the space junkyard grew by more than 100,000 pieces. That’s more than any other year since people started launching satellites into space. I know I keep coming back to this subject. The truth is, that like cutting edge science, I truly feel that this is and will be grist for the speculative fiction mill. I am surprised that it hasn't played a part in some of the newest fiction to date. Not as glamorous yes, but every bit a part of dangerous spaceflight.

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