Is Space Junk Cluttering Up The Final Frontier

Short Wave


We are tackling a question from listener. Rachel. Weiss space-junk this growing population of manmade objects cluttering up Earth orbit so 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, you want to avoid fighting the current kind of thing that's more. But 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 board, and of course, they can cross flightpaths and collide with one another and whenever satellite shed 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 you know 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 that day on average burns up or falls into the ocean. So space junk is probably not going to land on your head. Have you calculated that probability because you're GONNA ask me this question I haven't. But there's a scientist mark. Matinee, at NASA orbital debris program who has it's one in several trillion honestly I still like it but okay Mattie the people you should worry about more 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 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 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 they were testing out anti-satellite. Technology. Brian Weeden, remembers tracking this big explosion for the US air. Force. I personally was sort of shocked. It was 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. Got turned into three thousand things and that's just the things we can track wasn't space junk a big part of the movie gravity you are remembering cracks lake. From the missile strike has caused a chain reaction hitting other satellites in creating desgris two thousand eighteen Hollywood movie begins with a chatty George Clooney and Sandra bullock servicing the Hubble space telescope gays, and contentedly back at Earth. When this huge cloud of debris from missile strike grips through communications blackout it's a bad situation happen North America's laws individual. Dramatic portrayal definitely raise the profile of space junk. Even if the portrayal wasn't very accurate I, think navy on the whole it 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 he's now the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation thinks 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 nuclear chain reaction. Right there's one event that sets off this series of things that will happen very fast. The reality 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 decades with a big negative impact down the road. Got It. Yeah. So Brian says. The risk of space junk involves convincing people, launching satellites, 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 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. 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 isn't good for the commercials base economy, which is Kinda booming right now. Yeah. We did that episode all about how SPACEX IS GONNA put a bunch of satellites up there. Right you know in the long term space junk 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, 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

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