The Scope, the Official STEMscopes Blog

Taking out the Trash: Space Debris

Posted by Science Explored on May 14, 2013

Taking out the trash tonight?  We can agree it’s an easily done yet annoying daily chore.  On the other hand, “taking out the trash” in space is a huge undertaking, and we’re overdue for a cleanup.  Space debris – also called orbital debris, space junk, or space waste – is a danger not only to future, manned space travel but also represents a costly hazard for satellites.  Currently, almost 20,000 pieces of space debris larger than five centimeters (about the size of a paperclip) are tracked with another 300,000 pieces smaller than one centimeter (the size of a new eraser on the end of your pencil).  These orbiting pieces of junk include flecks of paint, tiny meteors, pieces of old satellites, micrometeoroids, and components of spent rockets once used to propel the space shuttle and other vehicles into space.  You might be asking yourself, “what danger could these tiny particles pose?” 

Space debris travels at tremendous velocities; many particles travel in excess of 15,000 mph!  At these speeds, even a grain of sand has as the ability to punch a hole through a steel plate, and space debris tends to be even larger.  In comparison, the average bullet travels at only 2,000 mph.   An upcoming Warner Bros. Picture Group movie, Gravity (view trailer), hints at just how terrifying space debris can be.  One collision causes a chain reaction of more and more things breaking up and becoming space waste.  So far, space debris has caused few problems, but in 2009 a private communications satellite named Iridium 33 destroyed itself and a Russian military satellite named Kosmos-2251 as they collided.  Their collision mangled and destroyed the satellites, adding to thousands of pounds of already existing space debris.  Scientist fear that as collisions become more frequent, future journeys to Mars or present-day spacewalks could be in jeopardy as spacecraft get punctured and destroyed by space debris.  Furthermore, present day satellites have little to no shielding.  As space debris collides with our satellites, not only will billions of dollars be spent on repairs but also telephone communications, television broadcasts, weather forecasts, and mapping systems may stop working as satellites are damaged beyond repair.

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Topics: Science Explored, satellites, space debris

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