SPACE WEEK: Is Space Junk Cluttering Up The Final Frontier?
Maddie Safai here at. Emily. We are rounding the corner on space sweet and preparing a new episode for you. Tomorrow all about the end of the universe you know something light and cheerful for the end of the summer twenty. Twenty. But before we go a big, thank you to all of you for listening to short wave. Thank you for your emails. You're reviews, your questions, such good questions, y'all which inspire our episodes all the time like this one from earlier this year on space junk, Oh and real quick if you haven't subscribed to or followed shortwave yet go ahead. The time is now earthlings we will not wait for you ship is leaving. That's right onto the show. You're listening to shortwave. From NPR. Everybody, Matty sify here with shortwave reporter Emily Kwong Hey. Hey you. So today we have a listener question episode. Hey, this one is from Rachel Weiss Hey there shortwave. This is Rachel from Jacksonville Florida and I was curious about space junk how much of a problem is it? If it all and where is all this junk anyways space The, final, frontier Mattie is not a pristine environment since the dawn of Sputnik, we've been filling it with satellites manmade objects placed in orbit, collect data and send signals for military purposes research communication navigation, our friend GPS. That's right. We are a satellite dependent world. I WANNA introduce you to more about John, he enlisted in the US. Military after high school and was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force. Base in Montana when he noticed satellites for the very first time Montana is big sky country and not only do you see lots of stars in the Milky Way and all that but I noticing these dots going across the horizon. and he realized those dots for satellites. I never imagined that with my naked I. I'd be able to see hardware other satellites of their reflecting sunlight and it was like. More. Of A now studies the movement of stuff in space including space junk at the University of Texas. At Austin. So what does he think of Rachel's question? Yeah. More of a says space junk is absolutely a problem. We send this material up into space and for the most part, it never comes back the US. Department of Defense is tracking on well over twenty thousand artificial satellites, payloads, rocket bodies, debris, and approximately ninety percent of that is non operational. Wow. This this junk that's a lot of junk. Yeah and the Department of Defense. Only tracks on objects that are at minimum ten centimeters diameter. So bigger than a softball. So we don't actually even know the full extent of what's up there. Well, there's been a few statistical models trying to estimate it. But the important thing to know is that this aggregate of space junk is growing most of it in low earth orbit NASA zone website describes this region has kind of an orbital space junkyard and the population of space junk is likely to grow, which might be a problem for anyone who you know lies on satellites. Pingo. So today in the show space junk why it's a problem and how it's building up in a final frontier with little regulation and a lot of trash will tell you about the first planned mission to pick up space junk. 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 impacts on the road. Yeah we're going to 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. Guidelines from the Inter, agency space, Coordination Committee for Mitigating the risk of debris things like Deorbit your satellite after twenty five years by burning it up or bringing it down passive the upper rocket stage meaning vent all the remaining fuel or training the batteries. So it's not as 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. We've talked about the problem give me a solution kwong like what is being done to clean up this. While we're not seeing much in the skies. There's been demonstrations of different cleanup technologies earth that could be used in space magnets to, and that's how. Little space fishing. Yeah. In the orbital 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 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. 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 to cost over one hundred, million dollars in twenty twenty five, the European Space Agency plans to send a cleanup robot to scoop up a chunk of 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. 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 too polluted to justed if we can't use these orbital 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 near Earth 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 question and thank you Rachel ways 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 NPR. Guy, rise NPR's how I built. This is simple splash of color accidentally launched. Sandy Chila which into a forty year career as a designer entrepreneur and creator of the now famous chiller which place mat subscriber listen now.