Since the beginning of the space era in October 1957 when the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) was launched, humans have set up thousands of satellites and rockets into space.
Our planet is already struggling with pollution on land. Now Earth’s orbit too is becoming the junkyard of our solar system. Just like Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus, Earth will have its own rings but they will be made of space Junk.
What is space junk or debris?
Space junk can be anything from dead satellites and scrapped rockets to nut bolts and even tiny flecks of paint. All these things float around the earth in the lower earth orbit. This is the orbit closest to the earth and most of the satellites and a space station too revolve in this orbit.
At present, there are more than 2,200 operational satellites orbiting Earth. Also, there are around 36500 pieces of junk bigger than 10 cm in size, 1000000 objects from 1 cm to 10 cm, 330 million objects from 1 mm to 1 cm revolving around the Earth. They orbit at a speed of 25,265 kmph, fast enough for a small piece of junk to damage a satellite.
What risks can space junk cause?
The rising amount of space junk increases the potential threat to all space objects, including the International Space Station and other spacecraft.
According to NASA, debris in orbits below 600 kilometers will fall back to Earth and burn up in the earth’s atmosphere within several years, but debris above 1,000 kilometers will continue orbiting the Earth for a century or more.
As space debris circles around the earth at massive speeds of about 25,265 kmph in lower Earth orbit, it could cause serious damage to a satellite or a spacecraft in case of a collision.
Space debris is unlikely to affect space travel to Mars and beyond because spacecraft will travel very fast through this problematic region. But for the satellites and ISS which stay in this problematic region, it’s a big threat.
In the geostationary orbit, protective and mitigation measures account for about 5 to 10% of mission costs, and for lower-Earth orbits the cost is higher.
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Some Satellite collision events
Collision events are rare, but there are some notable events –
The first collision between an operational satellite and space debris took place in 1996 when a part of the European Ariane rocket collided with a French satellite.
In February 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft collided with a functioning U.S. commercial spacecraft. This collision added more than 2,300 pieces of large debris with much more smaller debris to space junk.
In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite mission, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, and added more than 3,500 pieces of large debris to space junk.
In November 2021, Russia destroyed its own dead satellite. This event happened at an altitude of just 80 km from the international space station. Due to this, the risk for the space station has increased.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler proposed this idea. According to this, if there is a lot of space junk in orbit, it could result in more and more crashes and create new space junk. This could lead to the point where Earth’s orbit will become unusable. This is an extreme situation, but steps should be taken to avoid this.
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How can we remove space junk?
Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency have partnered with companies to help to remove space debris.
Several companies have come up with unique ideas –
Burning up all the fuel in a rocket stage, so it does not explode later or there is another solution of saving enough fuel to deorbit a satellite at the end of its mission.
Removing dead satellites from orbit and dragging them back into the atmosphere, where they will burn up. There are many ways we could do this including catching a satellite in a huge net, using magnets to catch it.
But all these methods are only useful for large debris orbiting Earth. There are no ways to pick up smaller pieces of debris.
Several companies like SpaceX and Amazon are planning to launch about 50,000 satellites to achieve global satellite internet coverage. This will add more junk into the space.
These orbits help us to study our planet, send space missions and more. It is important that we use it wisely, allowing future generations to enjoy its benefits.