Is space clutter something we should worry about?

Space debris is one of the next areas of concern according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

In the early 1950’s humanity started to reach for the stars. The space race saw the launch of numerous satellites, space shuttles and orbital stations. Today we have astronauts living year round aboard the International Space Station.

With all of these launches to space, there is a hidden junkyard: space debris. Whether it’s from used up rockets, broken up satellites or frozen fuel, space debris is all around Earth’s orbits. 

The 2009 satellite collision helps to understand space debris a little more; a communications satellite crashed into an inoperational satellite at over 11 km/s. That’s one type of  space debris, defunct satellites rolling around their old orbits. After their hypersonic crash, the satellites disintegrated into thousands of pieces. That’s another type of debris; shards from previous collisions, missions and even some repair work on other satellites. The debris from the collision moved all across Low Earth Orbit and the smaller pieces burnt up in the atmosphere over 2 years; but a lot of them are still in orbit today.

These pieces of space debris, over time, move all over Low Earth Orbit. The danger of this was highlighted by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978. His theory suggested that the amount of satellites and objects in Low Earth Orbit has increased; soon any collisions might cause cascading collisions and completely destroy all orbits.

One of the easiest ways to prevent space debris from harming satellites is called a graveyard orbit; an orbit far away from any of the commonly used ones. Sometimes this isn’t enough and another type of protection can be used for the smaller 10cm debris fragments; Whipple shields. Whipple shields stop these fragments travelling at over 28,000 km/h in an intuitive way. They try to break down the debris to smaller pieces; smaller pieces that are easier to deflect off the main body.

The space debris issue is a global challenge that requires coordinated international efforts and innovative solutions. As our reliance on space-based technologies grows, ensuring the sustainability of outer space becomes increasingly critical. By advancing our debris mitigation techniques, fostering international collaboration, and promoting responsible space behavior, we can safeguard the space environment for future generations.

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