International Space Station, Brian Weeden, Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee discussed on Short Wave

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We are tackling a question from listener Rachel Weiss on Space Jong this growing population of manmade objects cluttering births orbit. So how exactly does that happen. Okay I let's consider what satellites are made out of metal plastic glass powered by batteries or solar panels and when they're placed in specific orbital highways. They stay there moving so quickly that they don't fall towards the earth. Kind of like you know if you had to put a boat in a body of water. Are you want to avoid fighting current kind of thing. That's more of a jaw who we met earlier. He says that. From sputnik onwards our satellites have been creating debris shedding spent rocket bodies pieces becoming glued satellites have been known to explode when unspent fuel is on boarding and of course they can cross flight paths and collide with one another and whenever satellite should pieces. They tend to not should one but many many pieces hundreds of thousands of pieces depending on the type of collision. These collisions rarely destroy the satellites. But they can alter their operation and send pieces jettisoning off into space affected not only by gravity but other physical forces. So we're pressure thermal radiation charged particle environment Interactions with magnetic fields. And all of this makes it very difficult to predict what space junk will do next. The little that falls back to Earth which is one object. A day on average burns up or falls into the ocean so so space junk is probably not going to land on your head. Have you calculated that probability. Because you're gonNA ask me question. I haven't but there's a scientist the mark matinee at NASA's orbital debris program who has it's one in several trillion. Honestly I still like it. Okay Mattie the people you should worry about more four astronauts right. The International Space Station actually has a tracker to monitor for collision risk and they will maneuver out of the way when the risk is too great. Wow but I feel like if there was a major collision I would hurt about it right. Yeah there hasn't been a major collision you know the US military NASA and other agencies and groups around the world they tracked debris and Warren earn of potential collisions. But there's been a few scares in recent decades so in two thousand fifteen for example the crew on the International Space Station had to hide in their Sawyer's capsules basically the stations lifeboat. When debris from an old Russian weather satellite came dangerously close? I don't like that. No spacecraft and satellites will routinely maneuver out of harm's way away but only if they have ample warning so the whole spacefaring community was pretty rattled when in two thousand seven. The Chinese military destroyed one of their own weather satellites nights. They were testing out. anti-satellite Technology Brian Weeden remembers tracking this big explosion for the US Air Force. I personally was sort sort of shocked. It was kind of like wow. Brian was part of a squadron that counted the resulting debris and in the end ended up cataloging more than three thousand objects so that one satellite got turned into three thousand things. And that's just the things we can track wasn't space junk big part of the movie gravity you are remembering cracks. Blake from the missile strike has caused a chain reaction hitting other satellites in creating new degrees two thousand eighteen. Hollywood movie it begins. With a chatty George Clooney and Sandra bullock look servicing the Hubble space telescope as and contentedly back at Earth when this huge cloud of debris from missile strike grips through like a communication blackout. It's it's about situation happened north. America's lost their baseball dramatic portrayal. Definitely raise the profile of space junk. Even if the portrayal wasn't very accurate I think maybe I'm a whole at has been a good thing for for the issue even if I might grumble a little bit scientists love to grumble. That's Brian Weeden again gun. He's now the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation. Thanks a lot about sustainability in space and he says that opening scene gravity doesn't capture the true problem over the breath catches him was portrayed as sort of a a nuclear chain reaction right. There's one event that sets off this series of things that will happen very fast the reality he is sort of the opposite where it's it's like climate change the problem with space junk is it's a long relatively slow accumulation over for decades with a big negative impact down the road. Got It yeah so. Brian says mitigating. The risk of space junk involves convincing people launching satellites it's governments and companies to change their behavior now mindful of the future and maybe have a little inconvenience or a little more cost now to forestall bad things in the future and that's a really difficult argument to make because we humans just aren't engineered to kind of think like that preach especially especially when nothing truly catastrophic has happened yet but space junk is already proving to be problematic in the short term. It's translating into real world. Costs a satellite operators field alerts about potential collisions. Do Do I change my satellites orbit because that costs fuel and that will shorten the lifetime your satellite which which isn't good for the commercials base economy which is Kinda booming right now. Yeah we did that episode. All about how SPACEX is going to put a bunch of satellites up there right you know in the long term. Space trump has the potential to not only collide with manned spacecraft like the International Space Station but threatens satellites at all levels of orbit like those used for imaging and whether data collection election which then could mean. Our climate models are less accurate or we don't have a good way to track the mirrors and that could have negative impacts down the road. Yeah we're GONNA need that data we are. But here's the thing there's no. International Regulation for how satellites should operate. There's only guidelines guidelines yes the guidelines from the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee for mitigating the risk of debris. Things like Deorbit your satellite after twenty five years by burning it up for bringing it down passive the upper rocket stage meeting vent all the remaining fuel or draining the batteries so it's not exploding so there's less risk for debris countries do this but it's totally voluntary. It's up to each individual nation to implement so until there's greater accountability. Space Junk will continue to be a problem. Okay okay. We've talked about the problem. Give me a solution kwong. Like what is being done to clean up this junk while we're not seeing much in the skies there's has been demonstrations of different cleanup technologies on earth that could be used in space magnets deployable nets harpoons. A little space fishing. Yeah in the orbital see see most of this cleanup technology is being developed in Europe and Japan. But here's the thing we don't know what's the best way to Yank this swiftly moving debris out of orbit it to a place where it can safely burn up. You need a high level of precision to remove that junk without creating more of it and I feel like that would take a lot of money to pull that off. Yes yes so. It was a pretty big deal. When last December the European Space Agency Green Lit the first ever cleanup mission called clear space one which is estimated? It cost over one hundred million dollars and twenty twenty five. The European Space Agency plans to send a cleanup robot to scoop up a chunk of old old European rocket a chunk so they're spending over one hundred million dollars to clean up one piece of space junk. It's a big piece is is more significantly. This hasn't been done before right. Can we agree church. This is kind of progress. It could be a game changer. In the void of space which more about considers an ecosystem that we need to actually try to protect so if these natural pathways become. I'm too polluted to congested. If we can't use these horrible highways anymore then you can say goodbye to these services and capabilities so this is my concern. That's a tragedy of the Commons as it were in their space because of this lack of holistic management of this finite resource for me. It's so easy to see spaces infinite right but the space we use most that houses. Our satellites is actually pretty finite. Emily thank you for taking on this enormous listener listener question. And thank you Rachel Weiss for sending it. Thanks Rachel. This episode was produced by Brett. Hansen edited by lay and fact checked by burly McCoy. Thanks for listening to shortwave from N._P._R...

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