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Space junk is rising exponentially, becoming a real and increasing danger to satellites and the International Space Station. According to a report from the National Research Council, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the US government on science, the litter around the Earth´s orbit needs to be cleaned up.
This alert means that experts will have to use specific technologies to attract the rummage and throw it away, maybe to another orbit it is not harmful. As the report remarked there are 22,000 objects in orbit, plus an assortment of smaller ones that travel with enough speed to cause some damages to spaceships and satellites.
Regarding this point, retired Nasa senior scientist Donald Kessler, who headed the National Academy of Sciences report, told The Guardian, “the average impact velocity is 10km per second, and at 2km per second, the energy of the collision is equivalent to the particle´s mass in TNT.” In addition as he remarked to The Independent, “we’ve lost control of the environment”.
Since Science started to study the space, 54 years ago, many old satellites parts, spent rockets, pollution from the launches and civilization litter has converted Earth´s atmosphere into a dumping site for nuclear waste. As a consequence,s scientists have to come up with agreements to limit new space junk.
Those agreements are intended to make sure what is sent into orbit eventually falls back to Earth and burns. However, as the report highlighted, this time is completely different due to two different events. In 2007, China destroyed an orbiting weather missile with a weapon, and in 2009 two satellites crash-in-orbit. Both events created so much junk in the orbit they changed everything.
As Kessler said to the outlet media, “those two single events doubled the amount of fragments in Earth orbit and completely wiped out what we had done in the last 25 years.”
Which is the best method to clean it up?
In the study they don´t mention much about the clean up possibility, although that´s when the polemic comes up. On the one hand, some experts agree with Kessler about a company’s idea of a satellite that is armed with nets that could be sprung on wayward junk. Attached to the net is an electromagnetic tether that could either pull the debris down to a point where it would burn up harmlessly or boost it to safer orbit.
On the other hand, a report from US Defence Department science mentions all sorts of unusual techniques. The report by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is called “Catcher’s Mitt” and it mentioned harpoons, nets, tethers, magnets and even a giant dish or umbrella-shaped device that would sweep up tiny pieces of litter.
Any programme will have to face legal obstacles since current principles allow countries to rescue only their own objects. Nasa estimates that about 30% of space junk can be attributed to the United States.
In addition in foresee of future cleaning up operations, 12 countries set up the Inter-Agency Space Debris Co-ordination Committee in 1993 to supervise the programme.
Although Nasa had identified the need for removing debris, the agency and US government had not fully examined the economic, technological, political and legal considerations, the report added.
“The longer you wait to do this the more expensive it’s going to be. Given the economy, we’ll probably end up putting it off, but that’s really not very wise. This scenario of increasing space debris will play out even if we don’t put anything else in orbit,” Kessler said.