Space Junk: our real problem in space

Man has been known to leave behind everything he touches in a manner making it a tad untouchable. And while we seem to be running out of any earthly space to dispose of our garbage in, smart alecs who suggest that we use space have another thing coming: space is filled up too.

As physicist Michio Kaku puts it in his article on Big Think, ‘Forget Alien invasion—space junk is the real menace from space.The aftermath of the past fifty years of launching to a height as low as low earth orbit—and, of course, beyond—has been the end of the dreams of the famed minds who saw space as the ultimate dumping ground. As it turns out, even physicists now have a problem when it comes to sending things off to faraway places: they need to dodge the space junk floating around the earth much like a satellite (which is supposed to be there anyway.)

Now our problems do not end there. One look at the kind of horrifying things that we have categorised as junk will give us a clearer picture: we have things as small as few millimeters to things as big as booster rockets! There are paint flecks, metal shavings, gloves, screw drivers and wenches to name a few. And yet we have not seen the full consequences of these things out there.

But before we go into that, we can perhaps visualise how our earth might actally look from space (forget that computerised blue planet image from magazines and films.) This illustration released by the European Space Agency will paint a picture closer to the truth.

Space junk illustration, courtesy ESA

So now we are in a better position to understand the full implication of those white little things dotting the picture that make the earth look a little less attractive.

Those are in space, a region where there is a vacuum and little else. In other words there is nothing that opposes the motion of the objects there naturally (i.e. unless we pushed it in another direction of stopped it ourselves.) Now that means these objects are in perpetual motion.

So that is our first problem. We cannot wait them out and hope they will degrade like we can on earth. They are not going anywhere for the next trazillion years. And now our second question: it’s a paint fleck, what’s that going to do to a space shuttle?

Interesting thought, but remember how it got there in the first place. It came because of the launch of some satellite or shuttle or due to some Extra Vehicular Activity or the like. That adds up to mean, the debris—even that unassuming paint fleck—can be traveling at speeds well nigh 18,000 miles an hour: enough to punch a hole through a spacecraft.

Picture this: US, China and Russia had, by 2007, all experimentally collided their spacecrafts/satellites with demolishing weapons just to analyse the debris field. While it is needless to say that this has added quite a lot to the junk out there, it is interesting to note that the average lot of junk coming out of collisions of this degree it about 2,000 pieces.

In fact the International Space Station has, on many an occasion, had to divert from its path to dodge an incoming piece of space junk. At this rate, the day when the ISS will be surrounded by junk and have no space to dodge to is not really very far. Also, back in 2009, an Iridium telecommunications satellite crashed with an old Russian satellite over Siberia creating a massive space junk field consisting of over 2,000 pieces and another 400 expected and undergoing count!

As always, there is the question of what can be done. The United States has—quite expectedly—called all nations to be more responsible because ‘…space exploration is a right … and with that right comes a responsibility…’ but no straightforward actions have been taken as yet.

My stroll around a few discussion threads showed me that a great many people believe the debris can be cleared using some sort of large magnet. Even if we did build such a large magnet, it would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field causing great havoc—which, if you are wondering, is worse. And not all junk out there is magnetic. And one can go on, but—as I see it—the magnet idea will not get off paper any time soon.

In the meantime, there is little we can do except hope that the so-called space-faring nations exercise their responsibilities as well as they do their rights.

But you might be smart enough to have just found an idea of your own as to how we can answer this question. Share it below!