Lots of stuff is floating in space, mostly forgotten, uncontrolled, their missions long over.
How much stuff? Take a tranquilizer first and visit Stuff in Space for starters. It will show you. EVERYTHING. By name. In graphic detail. In real-time.
Doesn’t seem so roomy up there, does it?
Once upon a time, the only thing that a rocket or spacecraft could strike inadvertently was its own launch pad or perhaps its own booster rockets.
But space turned out to be a great place to populate with satellites. Lots of satellites. Sixty years later, most of these satellites, including the remains of the rockets that put them in space, orbits the earth in an increasingly precarious dance of doom.
Thankfully, space is big, even the area around our planet. Eventually, however, something floaty threatens to drift awfully close to another floaty object. When said floaty objects happen to be active satellites, people who own such satellites use whatever propulsive means to avoid it if they get sufficient notice. This happens occasionally. As Stuff in Space illustrates, Earth does have a rather decent orbital object tracking system.
This tracking system is key to the safety of not only unmanned satellites but things with people in it–particularly, the International Space Station. Once in awhile, the ISS has to use its precious orbital maneuvering fuel (or the engines of a docked Progress cargo or Soyuz spacecraft) to make a quick adjustment to the station’s orbit to reduce the possibility of getting hit by something.
It should be noted that the ISS, wing to wing, occupies an area slightly greater than an American football field (160 feet, or 48.5 m wide and 360 feet, or 109.1 m in length). That’s a big target.
We’re not talking about light taps from incoming junk. Depending on the orbital inclination and direction, objects could strike at orbital velocities or faster. It doesn’t even have to be a massive object to cause catastrophic damage, or even for the object to be moving especially fast. More on that in a moment.
What Earth doesn’t have is an immediate solution to remove said space junk.
Ideas have been presented. Treaties and practices to reduce the rate of junk are around. Companies such as SpaceX deliberately use non-pyrotechnic means to separate their rocket stages and spacecraft to limit floaty parts as well as increase stage separation reliability.
But ominous events still occur. Let’s recap a few.
Mir/Spektr: January 25, 1997
It’s a very good time in U.S./Russian space relations. Very cordial, even fun. Perhaps over some beer and vodka, NASA and the Russian space agency work out a cooperative plan for the Space Shuttle to visit and dock with Mir, providing supplies and occasionally dropping off an astronaut for an extended stay aboard what was then the largest orbiting structure.
On this day, astronaut Mike Foale is busy on Mir as two other cosmonauts fiddle and fret with a new, experimental automated docking system for a Progress cargo spacecraft, close by and ready for final approach. The automation goes wacko during approach and Progress collides with the Kvant module before putting a tiny hole somewhere in Spektr, causing a slow depressurization of the module. I should note that Spektr doubled as Foale’s bedroom.
Mir began a slow roll, which Foale helped Russian controllers to rectify later (after getting the leaking Spektr door sealed). Later spacewalks restored solar power generation and control back to Spektr, but it was sealed off forever from human habitation.
The Power of Paint Chips
Astronaut Tim Peake, aboard the ISS in 2016, took a dramatic picture inside the Cupola, the central viewing port for managing berthing and other remote control operations for some visiting vehicles by crew on the station.
The picture wasn’t of what he saw outside the window, but a 7 millimeter impact hole in a window itself.
Normally the windows are covered by a thick aluminum shield when not in use. The object had to be tiny, only a few thousandths of an millimeter, to create that little damage.
A 1 cm object could significantly damage outer experiments. Bigger than 1 cm and it could penetrate the pressurized modules. And if you’ve seen the film “Gravity,” you have a macabre idea what anything 10 cm or larger would do to a spacecraft or station.
Thankfully, the cupola’s windows are very thick and dense, designed to handle the small stuff.
But what happens when bigger stuff meets big stuff? Nothing good.
A Taste of Kessler Syndrome
So, one day in January 2007, China decided to test a kill-sat missile–by killing one of their own older satellites in orbit.
You can go to Stuff in Space to see it. Anything that says “FENGYUN 1C DEB” is the debris of that test. And there’s a lot of it. Suffice to say, once this report got out, much of the rest of the space-faring world was concerned, annoyed and/or downright pissed. The test was bad enough. This stunt left over 2,000 new pieces of debris flying about.
And then there was the sad fate of an Iridium communications satellite in 2009.
Here is Iridium 33, a 1-ton comsat launched on a Russian Proton rocket for the United States company in 1997, minding its own business, when an inactive 2-ton Kosmos satellite from 1993 hit it–at over 26,000 miles per hour or 11.7 km/second.
The collision created over 1,000 new pieces of debris for other satellites to dodge.
The event was so distressing that someone at NASA made a few slides about it for a Korean conference that same year, with some disturbing trends about this and similar incidents continuing to increase. At the time, one event every five years and growing.
NASA didn’t give a term for what they’d described, but there is a word for this, when a cascading series of collisions, each making more debris for something else to hit and make more debris. It’s Kessler syndrome. And yes, it’s as terrifying as it sounds.
One article from The Space Review notes the 2009 event and the legal implications and dodging of responsibilities that are occurring here. NASA feels that if only 5 large old satellites are removed from orbit, it would greatly reduce the chance of future events.
Let’s hope the world cleans up their act. We don’t need a scene out of the opening credits of “WALL-E” to show how space junk could accumulate so much that you couldn’t help but collide with something.