On October 4th, 1957 the then Soviet Union (USSR) successfully launched its Sputnik 1 satellite into the Earth’s orbit. While the spherical Soviet satellite wasn’t threatening to look at (weighing a mere 184 pounds and measuring a slim 23 inches wide), its small beeping signal heard back on Earth resonated throughout the United States and was viewed as a massive threat. As it turns out, that tiny beep ignited the already simmering space race and effectively forced both countries to push their limits of innovation and technical ability to the breaking point in an effort to reach a nonexistent finish line.
October 4th, 1957 was also the day that many stargazers tracked a faintly shining object as it sped around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. Many thought that they were looking at Sputnik 1 but in reality, they were seeing the detached rocket body that propelled it into orbit. While Sputnik 1 was roughly the size of a large beach ball, its rocket body was nearly 85 feet long and covered in reflective panels. Because of its size and reflective exterior, the rocket body was what people could actually see from Earth.
So why is the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite and its rocket body so important?
Well first, the discovery, evolution, and development of new technology as Sputnik 1’s launch brought us to the technological age that we now enjoy. But second, its rocket body was officially the first piece of space debris to be left in orbit after a launch.
October 4th, 1957 was the day that we entered space and, sadly, the day we first started leaving our garbage there.
Since that first dump, there have been 8,593 spacecrafts launched from the countries around the globe: Russia, United States, Europe, China, Japan, India, Israel, Brazil, South Korea…the list goes on. But when you understand that every single one of those 8,593 launches left some degree of space debris behind, you may start to see the problem.
What is space debris?
According to NASA, the term space debris actually encompasses both natural particles (meteoroids mostly in orbit around the sun) and artificial particles (man-made debris mostly in orbit around the Earth).
NASA and the IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee) define space debris as any man-made object in orbit around the Earth that no longer serves a useful function.
Nonfunctional satellites: Every year, hundreds of satellites are launched into space by cell phone, television, GPS receiver, and major communication companies. In addition to those eventually aging and failing satellites, there are even more that observe everything from weather and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to those that look away from Earth to study the stars. Regardless of their purpose, all satellites eventually wear out over time. They are really no different than the machines we have on Earth.
Abandoned launch vehicle stages: Modern space shuttles are actually a piggyback of several rockets stacked on top of one another. When space shuttles launch it usually takes more than one rocket to power them into space. The additional rockets are fired off in stages. The final stages, or upper stages, expel material from the spacecraft that can easily get trapped in the Earth’s orbit.
Note: This upper stage debris is often some of the largest left in space (remember Sputnik 1’s rocket body?)
Solid-fuel rockets: Some space shuttles use solid rocket fuel for propulsion since this type of fuel can remain in storage for long periods of time while also remaining reliable for short notice launches. Like the upper stages, these fuel containers detach and are left to float in Earth’s orbit.
Tiny flecks of paint: Millions of tiny pieces of paint may exist in the Earth’s orbit. Things such as heat when leaving the atmosphere or impacts with other particles can chip the paint free from launched satellites and other spacecraft.
If there is so much of it, why can’t we see space debris?
When we look at breathtaking images of Earth, we don’t see the landfill (space-fill as we like to call it) that surrounds it because of size ratio. The Earth is 7,917.5 miles across and much of the space debris is simply traveling too fast and is just too small in comparison.
How does space debris cause problems in space?
Let’s take a quick look at space debris and its need for speed.
Space debris travels at roughly 17,500 mph. That speed is hard to fathom, even with the keenest of imaginations. For the sake of making our point, let’s give it a shot.
17,500 mph is nearly seven times faster than a speeding bullet (a bullets travel at roughly 1,700 mph). At that speed, space debris can cause extensive damage to anything that it collides with.
To make matters worse, space debris isn’t colliding with stationary objects. According to NASA, the average impact speed of a piece of orbital debris running into another moving object is 22,370 miles per hour (roughly 13x faster than a speeding bullet).
NASA also points out that being hit by a piece of debris smaller than half an inch around, as it travels at about six miles per second, would be like being hit by a bowling ball traveling at 300 miles per hour.
1. Astronauts are at risk
Space debris puts astronauts at risk during their spacewalks. NASA defines a spacewalk as “any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space.”
What does the threat look like?
In addition to the many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked there are roughly 500,000 pieces of space debris the size of a marble or larger (1 cm in diameter).
Even more dangerous are the roughly 20,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth that are larger than a softball (8.89 to 9.652 cm).
While an astronaut’s suit is engineered to keep them safe under extreme conditions, it is not able to protect them if they are hit by anything measuring larger than 1 cm in diameter. The only protection they have from objects that size comes from the Whipple shields on the International Space Station (ISS). A Whipple shield is a multi-layered shield designed to break up impacting object as they pass through multiple layers.
To protect against bigger objects the shields have to be bigger. Bigger means heavier and heavier means difficult to launch. That’s one of the reasons that the shields on the ISS do not protect it from everything. When it can’t protect itself or its astronauts, the ISS has to get out of the way.
2. Occasionally the ISS has to play an interstellar game of dodgeball
Thanks to the film industry, the thought of moving anything in space seems relatively simple. In reality, a change in position for something as large as the ISS (roughly the size of a football field) actually takes days to complete. In fact, in 2014 the ISS had to avoid collisions with debris not once, not twice, but a painstaking three times.
Note: Remember that the ISS is a temporary home to real life astronauts. These collisions could have had deadly repercussions. There are also times when there is no time to move. When this happens, the astronauts of the ISS make their way to emergency shelters in the station, wait out the impact, and hope for the best.
3. Satellites going down – the stuff movies are (literally) made of
In the event that a major satellite came into contact with space debris, severe damage or destruction would likely occur. The chances of this happening are not that far removed according to the Kessler Syndrome.
How does space debris cause problems on Earth?
NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler proposed the Kessler syndrome, or the Kessler effect, in 1978 as a scenario in which “The density of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.”
Let’s do some basic addition using Kessler’s scenario…
The IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines defines LEO as an “Orbit around Earth with an altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) or less, and an orbital period of between about 84 and 127 minutes.” In addition, the majority of space debris exists in LEO where it is colliding with itself to cause more space debris that is effectively continuing the same process.
In other words, space debris is making more space debris.
It’s also important to know that the most commonly used orbits for both manned and unmanned space vehicles are within the LEO. Yes… that includes our beloved cell phone, television, GPS receiver, and major communication company satellites.
Communication stand still
If all telecommunication satellites were wiped out, the world would rely on undersea cables and ground-based communication systems. The shift of usage away from the satellites would quickly stretch the capacity of these systems to their limit.
Hundreds of millions of Internet connections would be lost while a similar number of cell phones would become useless. Remote areas could lose service altogether, leaving the residents previously dependent on satellites for television, Internet, and radio in complete darkness.
Scary Fact: In 1998 one satellite failed and all of the pagers in the world stopped working.
GPS can’t be found
A lack of personal navigation would have a large impact but, if the Global Positioning System (GPS) were lost, there would actually be a lot more at stake.
• Airlines use GPS to chart the most fuel-efficient and expeditious routes.
• Aircraft controllers would have issues communicating with and routing airplanes.
• Navigation driven cargo vessels, supply-chain management systems, and transportation hubs could be derailed.
• The lack of effective global syncing provided by GPS would affect banking. The halted timing of transactions needing to be recorded would likely freeze credit card payments and bank accounts. Businesses could lose billions of dollars.
The military would have to reset
In an interview with Gizmodo, 21st-century warfare expert Peter W. Singer from New America Foundation was quoted as saying, “He who controls the heavens will control what happens in the battles of Earth.” Singer continued to note that our active satellites are like the nervous system of the military. If that system were lost then our military capabilities would return to the “pre-digital age.” Say goodbye to drones, guided missiles, and ground unit communication.
How is the global community currently dealing with space debris?
The US Air Force is a sort of space debris librarian
The US Air Force has been on top of the space debris problem since the early 1980s. In fact, they have a specialized team dedicated to cataloging and documenting the issue. As of 2016, they had cataloged over 200,000 items that were about the size of a small ball and those roughly 500,000 items we mentioned that are the size of a regular marble.
When it comes to the smaller space debris, the US Air Force is getting a little help…
The Space Fence project
Lockheed Martin is working to complete a digital radar system that could wrap around the Earth like a fence, allowing the US Air Force to log even more debris using optical sensors and an intensified wavelength frequency. This honed tracking would allow smaller objects to be followed more accurately while allowing researchers to predict their future movement. This is a huge help when there is the need to get important things like astronauts, live satellites, and the ISS out of harm’s way.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is testing the idea of taking the human component out of a spacewalk. Their proposed alternative is a remote-controlled robot named Justin. Justin would replace the astronaut as a physical presence outside of their manned vehicle without replacing their needed skill set. To make sure that the astronaut still maintains fully hands-on, Justin’s tactile movements would be felt through electronic sensors placed in a glove worn by the remote astronaut operator.
The bottom line for space debris cleanup is a fat one
The price tag for space debris clean up is staggering. Luckily, the nature of this problem has piqued the interest of a few private companies.
Take the Aerospace Corporation and their Brane Craft for example. According to an article published by Extreme Tech in September of this year, the Brane Craft is essentially “A 2-dimensional design, with a total thickness of just 10 micrometers. With a total surface area of about a square yard, it would make a tempting target for tiny bits of space debris or micrometeorite. Something as small as 5 micrometers could blast through the main structural sheet if it were struck, so The Aerospace Corporation is working to make it as durable as possible.”
It is probable that no one was thinking about the future debris repercussions caused by that October 4th, 1957 launch. Unfortunately, the world’s scientific community is not that lucky. We need them to once again push their limits of innovation and technical ability to the breaking point in an effort to clean up our space debris past before it diminishes our future.