Space is big, but the space around Earth occupied by satellites is much smaller. Right now there are 4,857 satellites circling the globe. Some are live and transmitting data. Others are dead – true space junk.
Since the 1957 Russian Sputnik 1 became the first successful artificial satellite, 8,126 objects have been launched into space – rockets are included in this number which comes from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
What?!? You didn’t know that the UN has an office to govern outer space…
One outer space affair that doesn’t get much press is just how much space junk there really is out there in the satellite belt.
Parts of rockets, some of them quite large, detach during a launch. Like dead satellites, some of these parts take up an orbital path while others fall back down, burning in the atmosphere. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says this about aerial fall-out:
“This is not as rare as you might think, as one average about one satellite a week returns to Earth in one form or another.”
On April 1, 2018, the failed Chinese space lab, Tiangong 1 finally fell down after its orbit decayed. That took two years after the situation was detected in 2016. 19,000 pounds of Chinese technology the size of a school bus came hurtling into the upper atmosphere. Most of it burned up on re-entry and the rest plunged into the southern Pacific Ocean, just north-west of Tahiti, becoming sea junk.
UNOOSA reports that, currently, there are 1,980 active satellites, making up only 40 percent of all the satellites encircling the near-space around Earth. This sounds great until you realize that the other 2,877 satellites are dead as a doornail and official space junk.
Live or dead, a satellite or space vehicle may shed a fleck of paint when struck by another bit of space debris or rock. All these bits and pieces have added up since 1957.
The International Space Station (ISS) maintains a Low Earth Orbit about 250 miles above the earth’s surface, traveling at about 17,500 miles per hour. The weather-tracking GOES system of satellites is in a geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above the earth, traveling at about 7,000 miles per hour.
Basic physics tells us that because the rocket or satellite that littered space is traveling at a high rate of speed, so are the bits and pieces that come off of launched spacecraft.
At speeds of over 15,000 miles per hour, if even a tiny paint chip smacked into an astronaut outside the protective vehicle, the hole would be big enough to “let space in” – which is really to say, let the air out. Depressurization in freezing space is a horrible fate.
Unfortunately, this type of mishap could happen at any moment. Fortunately, as Cathleen Lewis, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, told Reddit readers, of the four documented incidents of spacesuit failure, none have resulted in death.
As we said before, space is big. So far, the astronauts have been lucky. Here’s what would happen if a piece of debris did manage to tear away a sizeable portion of astrogarb:
“Without a spacesuit and the oxygen necessary to breathe, an astronaut would immediately feel the nitrogen coming out of his fluids, almost like the tears and saliva were carbonated. After about 15 seconds, he would pass out and, without an emergency rescue, he would die within two minutes. The body would float in space and only very slowly lose body heat because there is no efficient way to radiate heat away from the body.”
A small puncture could be extremely painful, but not lethal. The flesh in the immediate area would swell and stopper the hole.
Another threat to human safety and survival in outer space comes from space junk slamming into an orbital environment like the ISS or human-piloted spacecraft. This just happened, in fact.
Although the official story says a meteorite struck the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft attached to the Rassvet module of the Russian segment of the ISS, it could just as well have been artificial debris.
Flight controllers on the ground noticed a small drop in air pressure aboard the ISS while the Expedition 56 crew was sleeping caused by a 2mm wide (read: tiny) microfracture. NASA alerted the team after they awoke who promptly did a quick-fix with some Kapton tape to seal the leak. Later, Soyuz commander Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) plugged the leaking gap with a resin epoxy on a gauze wipe.
NASA has an Orbital Debris Program Office which is working hard to solve “orbital debris issues.” Their mission is “to protect, preserve, and distribute samples for study from the Moon, Mars, and interplanetary space in support of solar system exploration.” By studying micro-impacts found on retrieved spacecraft and components – including the Genesis and Stardust sample return capsules and pieces of Surveyor III, the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), the Solar Maximum satellite, the European Recoverable Carrier (EuReCa), the MIR space station and the Hubble Space Telescope – the space junk curators hope to solve the problem of damage in outer space caused by the increasing amount of stuff left up there.
Leave it to the Russians to take a more head-on approach to get rid of space trash. Roscosmos announced its plan to build a solid-state space laser capable of vaporizing anything in its path. What could possibly go wrong?
Other countries’ proposed solutions include nets, harpoons, robotic arms and tentacles, electrical currents to slow space debris and force it to burn up on re-entry, slingshots to hurl objects back to earth, and sails to push litter into the upper atmosphere for harmless incineration.
It’s about time we adults took orbital debris seriously. That space junk isn’t going to clean itself up.