We all know how important and courteous it is to pick up your trash. Well, it seems we have a pretty big room to clean that we have left cluttered for too long. Some of the experts think it might be just about ready to become a major catastrophe. It is space debris.
Since the launch of the Space Age via Sputnik 1 in 1957, followed by over 7,100 spacecraft of various sorts, scientists estimate the ensuing debris now amounts to about half a million particles. The size of these particles varies from a BB to a grapefruit or larger. Consider that most of these pieces are moving at approximately 17,000 miles per hour, and that makes for a pretty dangerous environment (not that space by itself isn’t dangerous enough of course). The problem has compounded especially in the last seven years as Brian Bremmer and Peter Robison explain (“Cleaning Up the Final Frontier” Bloomberg Businessweek, 1/20/14–1/26/14, pp. 6–7):
“The amount of detritus has expanded exponentially since 2007, when the Chinese intentionally destroyed one of their weather satellites. Two years later came the accidental collision of the Iridium Communications SV33 and Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellites over Siberia. The rubble generated from those two events now accounts for one-third of all cataloged orbital rubble, according to NASA data.” (p. 7)
Beyond that, the more debris you have in orbit the more collisions you have and a cascading occurs. Some believe we must take immediate measures to capture and remove space debris. Failing to do so may render low earth orbit unusable.
Technologically and innovatively, I think we have the capability to fix this problem relatively easily. The interesting question will be how quickly do we make it happen? As more entrepreneurs propose space-debris solutions and as industrial space research and development grow, the speed of execution will follow. Already, Lockhead Martin and Raytheon are in the running for a multibillion-dollar contract with the Air Force to build a radar system dedicated to tracking space debris.
Now I know why my mom always got on my case about cleaning up my room.