Stop to waste of space
Trashed: tiny pieces of debris are orbiting at thousands of kilometres per hour. NASA
Scientists representing the world’s spacefaring nations have settled on plans to prevent the final frontier from filling up with man made junk. Moving at thousands of kilometres per hour, even tiny pieces of orbiting debris are a threat to satellites, space probes and manned missions1.
After 13 years of deliberation, members of the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) mainly national space agencies and commercial space users have agreed on how to address the problem of space waste. Their guidelines will be submitted to the United Nations in February next year and should come into effect soon after that.
“Unless we do something now, we won’t be able to use space in the future,” explains Richard Crowther of QinetiQ, part of the UK’s defence research industry. Picking up trash would be unfeasibly expensive, so the only option is to try not to produce more.
Space is accumulating garbage so fast that within decades dangerous collisions will become inevitable, rather than a risk, experts warn. Last week the International Space Station had to shift its orbit su timberland uk ddenly to avoid colliding with a piece of Russian rocket tumbling around the Earth.
But coming up with plans has been a long haul, says group member timberland uk Richard Tremayne Smith of the British National Space Centre. “For example, getting the Russians and the Americans to talk about certain things wasn’t easy,” he recalls. These two nations operate the majority of spy satellites and are notoriously secretive about their orbits.
The new rule timberland uk s require satellites to carry enough fuel to fire them back towards Earth or into empty regions of space at the end of a mission. Excess fuel and batteries on spacecraft must be discharged to prevent them exploding, further contaminating space with litter. For the same reason, temporary shrouds, explosive bolts and the like must remain attached to their vehicles.
Despite new technologies, the rules might make space missions more expensive. But in the long run the IADC believes the benefits are worth the cost. “We need to keep space open for business,” says Tremayne Smith.
Junk science Since Sputnik was l timberland uk aunched in 1957, near Earth space has accumulated 10,000 times more debris than the dust and fragments of rock that was there before. Now, orbiting nuts, bolts, rocket boosters, retired satellites, even flakes of paint and drops of human waste are moving fast enough to destroy or seriously damage delicate spacecraft.
The geostationary zone is particularly overcrowded. NASA
Popular orbits, such as the geostationary zone 36,000 kilometres above the Earth, are becoming particularly overcrowded. Objects here remain fixed above a certain region of the globe ideal for communications satellites.
Nearly 9,000 items larger than 10cm across the most hazardous are being tracked by radar from Earth. Over 200 of these are from Russian space station Mir many of them are bags of trash produced in the station’s 10 year lifespan.
Objects 200 km above the Earth and closer fall back to the Earth in decades, but those further out will stay for thousands if not millions of years, says Crowther. “We’re launching stuff faster than nature can bring it back,” he says.