Space Junk

Space travelers who do a flyby of Earth do not admire our junk. One more reason to avoid this rock. The heavens are filled with man-made stuff, debris from space flights, satellites and our presence. Where we go, waste follows.

The proliferation of space junk.

The U.S. Space Command is charged with tracking space junk. Besides monitoring these objects in orbit, this group tracks items falling back to Earth, estimating when objects might re-enter the atmosphere, who owns them, where these objects are in orbit, and awareness of when they do return to Earth to avoid potential false reads of enemy missiles. Russia, the European Space Agency and most likely China have similar organizations. Dr. Strangelove moments.

The Space Surveillance Telescope was developed with the technology to identify and record objects in orbit. It also tracks things like asteroids that venture close to Earth. The SST is a U.S. military telescope that was relocated to Australia.

Diagram showing the location of junk surrounding Earth.

So, how much junk is up there, you ask? NASA says more than 27,000 objects. Those are just the objects large enough to track. Additional small objects are in orbit, traveling 15,000 miles per hour, that can impact and create major damage to a spaceship. Imagine being hit by a screw or small object at that speed. The ultimate bitch slap.

If you have seen the Sandra Bullock-George Clooney film, Gravity, you have an idea of the destructive force of space junk. It is crowded up there. Fred G. Sanford would love to have the chance to pick through the junk for valuable metals and space souvenirs.

From a NASA webpage:

  • In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.
  • On Feb. 10, 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial spacecraft. The collision added more than 2,300 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller debris to the inventory of space junk.
  • China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller debris to the debris problem.

A space walk by two U.S. astronauts was called off because of the potential danger by debris from a Russian satellite (Cosmos 1408) that was blown up by an anti-satellite missile. The satellite was an old Soviet-era model which was no longer working. According to NASA, the debris field is large and consists of both very small, untrackable objects, and 1,700 larger objects that will eventually be part of the list of junk that is tracked.

Earlier this year, a piece of space junk punched a hole in a robotic arm on the Space Station, and it is not unusual for the Space Station to maneuver out of the way of orbiting junk to avoid damage. When the Russian satellite was blown up, the Space Station astronauts, including two Russians, had taken shelter inside the Space Station.

The Outer Space Treaty (1972) does include provisions of liability for damage caused for space activities. As of right now, no cases for space junk have been brought. However, word has it that Judge Judy may take on this area for her new television show. Next up, Biden v. Putin. Bailiff, bring in the parties.


2 thoughts on “Space Junk

  1. Once again you and I meet on common ground. I too cringe about the pollution we’re now jettisoning into space, as if turning the Earth into a landfill isn’t enough. There’s also the Moon. (Read this: https://www.sciencealert.com/we-ve-hardly-visited-but-humans-have-already-left-more-than-400-000-pounds-of-waste-on-the-moon.) Golf balls being hit (real cute, Shepard), selfies left behind (Irwin), bags of urine, and LOTS of metallic junk. And I still don’t understand why five American flags are up there. Nationalism on the Moon, for chrissakes? As if our country claimed< the Moon for itself? Shouldn’t landing there be a victory for mankind, not just one arrogant chunk of Earth’s geography? And now we’re doing the same thing to Mars. Am I the only one who asks these questions?

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