If you ever find yourself gazing up at the night sky and contemplating the wonders of outer space, skip hire is probably one of the very last things which is likely to come to mind. But perhaps it would if your eye was able to register something which is passing above you at thousands of miles per hour – space debris.
At first it might seem a little hard to take seriously the idea of space, in all its vastness, having a trash problem. But humans have a tendency to generate rubbish wherever they go, and outer space is no exception.
Since the first of the moon landings, NASA recognised that returning astronauts to earth would be more simple and cost effective if weight could be cut down by abandoning some of the equipment on the moon’s surface. Unmanned missions to the moon also usually end with the probe being deliberately crashed. As a result, over 70 vehicles and more than 18 tonnes of rubbish have so far collected on the moon, and similar junk is now even beginning to collect on Venus and Mars.
Luckily, as NASA plan future manned exploration to further reaches of space, they are developing potential waste solutions. Rather than jettison resources that will become increasingly limited on longer journeys, technologies have been developed to allow for greater reuse, including extracting water, turning waste into methane gas to use as fuel, and compacting it into denser material to use as a barrier against space radiation. Astronauts aboard the current International Space Station collect their rubbish in bags before sending it back to Earth in commercial supply vehicles running the space equivalent of a small skip hire service.
Looking at things from an earth-bound perspective, however, a more immediate and pressing problem is space debris we mentioned earlier.
Since the 1957 launch of the Sputnik, more than 8,500 spacecraft have been launched, and each of these launches has generated space debris. According to NASA, space debris is defined as any manmade material orbiting around Earth which has stopped fulfilling a useful purpose. A common example of this kind of space junk is broken satellites – several hundred satellites are sent into space yearly by communication and GPS providers. These satellites eventually stop functioning and join the existing mass of debris. The detachable rockets used to power the initial launch of space shuttles are another kind of large object which can end up floating in orbit.
As a result of the pressures of leaving the atmosphere and collision with small particles, small flecks of paint often come off the exteriors of spacecraft, adding tiny but potentially hazardous particles to the larger debris. Altogether, more than 7,600 tonnes of junk is currently orbiting the Earth, including around 23,000 objects which are big enough to be trackable and tens of millions of smaller objects which are too little to monitor but still sufficiently sized to pose a risk to both manned and unmanned spacecraft.
Bits of paint might not sound all that threatening, but space debris, orbiting satellites and spacecraft are all traveling extremely fast. Impact speeds would typical reach over 22,000 miles per hour – about 13 times quicker than a bullet. The forces involved are hard to fathom, but if it helps your imagination, NASA estimates that colliding with an object less than half an inch around at these speeds would produce an impact similar to running into a bowling ball moving at 300 miles per hour.
The suits which astronauts wear while out on spacewalks offer a degree of protection, but aren’t much use against any space debris with a diameter of more than 1 centimeter. Satellites such as the International Space Station use Whipple Shields – specially engineered shields with multiple layers which reduce the damage an impacting object can do by breaking it into smaller pieces.
Some pieces of space junk are simply too large, however, and the only option is to avoid them. In 2014, the International Space Station needed to move off of a collision course with space debris three times. Manoeuvres like these run for several days, which isn’t surprising when one considers that the satellite is about as big as a football field.
As alarming as the threat of space debris must be to astronauts, NASA, and other space agencies, the biggest consequences of a satellite broken by space debris would likely be felt down on Earth. The loss of all telecommunications satellites would immediately force the whole world to run as best it could on ground-based networks such as undersea cables, and many millions of cell phone and internet connections would be lost. Even back in 1998, the level of dependence on satellites for modern communication was made clear when the failure of a single satellite caused all the pagers worldwide to stop functioning.
Satellites are also critical to gps systems, which are critical to the function of a range of modern services. As well as impeding airlines, cargo ships and transport hubs, banking systems would also lose access to gps-dependent global syncing. This would likely stop accounts and transactions, potentially causing billions of dollars of losses for businesses.
As such, it’s reassuring to know that efforts are being made to manage and even solve the growing problem of space debris. The US Air Force has a team specialising in cataloguing space debris; since the 1980s they have managed to document hundreds of thousands of items. In Europe, new technology for clearing small and large debris is also being tested. A satellite named REMOVEdebris combining a net and harpoon to retrieve smaller debris with a sail to slow it down until it comes out of orbit and fall back into the Earth’s atmosphere is one option. For larger objects like broken satellites, a spacecraft equipped with sensors to synchronise and latch on to debris has been proposed.
Back down on Earth there are of course plenty of other junk problems that need taking care of. With an affordable and environmentally friendly alternative to skip hire, Junk 2 Go are the people to call if you have a junk problem that needs to go away. Call us today on 0800 586 524.