On February 10, a derelict Russian satellite traveling at thousands of miles an hour in Earth orbit smashed into a U.S. communications satellite in active commercial use. The impact destroyed both satellites, scattering thousands of cubic miles of deadly debris in orbit. The problem brought the problem of space trash, a growing issue, into sharp focus.
From space exploration efforts like the shuttle and space station missions, to commercial efforts like communications and GPS satellites, Earth is increasingly relying on access to space. However, planning space launches is becoming the equivalent of taking a trip out through a mine field due to the thousands of fragments of rockets, satellites, and other manmade junk in space orbit. This junk, traveling at thousands of miles an hour, has the ability to level a communications satellite -- a multimillion dollar loss. In the case of a spacecraft, such an impact could turn deadly as the hull could be punctured.
Scientists and aerospace engineers are beginning to grow increasingly alarmed about the hazards posed by space trash. In response, some are creating wild schemes. Jim Hollopeter, a former rocket engineer, has cooked up a scheme to spray space trash with water, forcing it into lower orbits and eventually a fiery disintegration in the Earth's atmosphere.
Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory is considering two schemes -- one that would involve using space-based lasers to burn trash, another that would use a rocket that would zip around collecting trash. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's 1996 Project Orion is being revived as a possibility. This projected planned for ground-based lasers to zap tech trash like a broom.
Jonathan W. Campbell who led Project Orion remembers that at the time it required technology that was out of reach. He states, "I thought it would be a Buck Rogers thing."
He now says that for the price of a Shuttle launch -- $500M USD -- he believes such a laser can be built, nudging thousands of bits of garbage out of orbit in only a few years. The key to his plan would be to use low power quick-pulse lasers, which, similar to the John Hopkins plan, would create small burns on space trash to lower its orbit.
Launchspace Training, a space consulting firm in Bethesda, Md. recently held an open space-cleaning ideas forum. Mr. Hollopeter's idea was among those submitted. Describes director Robert Russo, "There's a magnificent pool of knowledge and talent out there, and I think they're just not being asked."
He says that "techno-geeks who read science fiction and know nothing about space" submitted some of the most outlandish ideas. Among such far-out suggestions were to use big nets and large magnets to snag refuse, or using high-energy lasers to atomize debris. All of these ideas are entirely economically infeasible -- the magnets due to the lack of magnetic material in debris, the nets due to the virtual impossibility of proper control, and the lasers because they would only make the problem worse, creating smaller particles.
Ultimately, the best solution may be to simply decrease space littering in the future, to avoid more headaches. Heiner Klinkrad, who runs the European Space Agency's Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, and is chairman of the global Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee has been driving home this point for years, and has only recently started to convince people.
Spacecrafts should be designed to not scatter bolts or straps in space as they release probes, and satellites should have means to exit orbit at their end of life, he says. He states, "We need to treat space like a national park -- carry out what you carry in."
While this may be the wisest approach, the problem continues to grow. The February 10 collision over Siberia in orbit created 600 more big fragments, while China's destruction of its Fengyun-1C weather satellite created with a ballistic missile created around 3,000 fragments. In total an estimated 13,000-15,000 mid-to-large fragments are stuck in orbit -- giving Earth man-made rings of sorts.
And while wild collection and removal schemes abound, not one has made it off the ground yet. In short -- this is one problem that isn't likely to go away soon.