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Trackable objects in Earth ORbit.  Image Credit:  ESA

Space Debris Illustrated: The Problem in Pictures

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

by

Space junk, space debris, space waste — call it what you want, but just as junk and waste cause problems here on Earth, in space spent booster stages, nuts and bolts from ISS construction, various accidental discards such as spacesuit gloves and cameras, and fragments from exploded spacecraft could turn into a serious problem for the future of spaceflight if actions to mitigate the threat are not taken now. The European Space Operations Centre has put together some startling images highlighting this issue. Above is a depiction of the trackable objects in orbit around Earth in low Earth orbit (LEO–the fuzzy cloud around Earth), geostationary Earth orbit (GEO — farther out, approximately 35,786 km (22,240 miles) above Earth) and all points in between.

Trackable objects in Low Earth Orbit.  Image Credit:  ESA
Between the launch of Sputnik on 4 October 1957 and 1 January 2008, approximately 4600 launches have placed some 6000 satellites into orbit; about 400 are now travelling beyond Earth on interplanetary trajectories, but of the remaining 5600 only about 800 satellites are operational – roughly 45 percent of these are both in LEO and GEO. Space debris comprise the ever-increasing amount of inactive space hardware in orbit around the Earth as well as fragments of spacecraft that have broken up, exploded or otherwise become abandoned. About 50 percent of all trackable objects are due to in-orbit explosion events (about 200) or collision events (less than 10).
Impact from space debris on shuttle window
Officials from the space shuttle program have said the shuttle regularly takes hits from space debris, and over 80 windows had to be replaced over the years. The ISS occasionally has to take evasive maneuvers to avoid collisions with space junk. And of course, this debris is not just sitting stationary: in orbit, relative velocities can be quite large, ranging in the tens of thousands of kilometers per hour.

For the Envisat satellite, for example, the ESA says the most probable relative velocity between the satellite and a debris object is 52,000 kilometers per hour. If a debris objects hits a satellite, the ISS or the Shuttle, at those speeds it could cause severe damage or catastrophe.

Space Debris in polar orbit.  Image Credit:  ESA

Above is a depiction of debris in polar orbit around Earth. From the image below, it’s evident how explosions of spacecraft causes even more scattered debris. Even after the end of the mission, batteries and pressurised systems as well as fuel tanks explode. This generates debris objects, which contribute to the growing population of materials in orbit, ranging from less than a micrometer to 10 centimeters or more in size.
An upper stage of a spacecraft exploding.  Image Credit:  ESA

About 40% of ground-trackable space debris come from explosions, now running at four to five per year. In 1961, the first explosion tripled the amount of trackable space debris. In the past decade, most operators have started employing on-board passive measures to eliminate latent sources of energy related to batteries, fuel tanks, propulsion systems and pyrotechnics. But this alone is insufficient. At present rates, in 20 or 30 years, collisions would exceed explosions as a source of new debris.

2112 future simulation.  Image credit: ESA
The ESA says it is crucial to start immediately to implement mitigation measures. This image shows a simulation of the the 2112 GEO environment in the case when no measures are taken. In the top panel, with mitigation measures, a much cleaner space environment can be observed if the number of explosions is reduced drastically and if no mission-related objects are ejected. The bottom panel shows the “business-as-usual” scenario, without any mitigation measures taken. However, to stop the ever-increasing amount of debris, more ambitious mitigation measures must be taken. Most importantly, spacecraft and rocket stages have to de-orbited and returned to Earth after the completion of their mission.

They’ll burn up in the atmosphere, or splash down in uninhabited ocean areas. In the case of telecommunication and other satellites operating in the commercially valuable geostationary zone, they should boost their satellites to a safe disposal orbit, as shown below.
Graveyard orbit.  Image credit:  ESA

There are other measures, like reducing the number of mission-related objects and controlling the risk for reentry, but these are the basics. The issue is that such mitigation measures cost fuel and operational time, and therefore they increase cost. In the commercial world, this may competitiveness, unless there is an international consensus to accept such costs.

Original News Source: ESA

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JGxHitzert
Guest
April 11, 2008 1:48 PM

I agree Nathan. Also with a finite amount of resources on Earth you have to wonder when the value of this space junk will be such that we will need to bring it back and recycle it.

waldo
Guest
waldo
April 11, 2008 3:17 PM

They demoted Pluto from the list of planets because it hadn’t
cleaned up it’s orbit. If this littering keeps up we’ll have to demote earth too.

Chet
Guest
Chet
April 11, 2008 10:43 AM

The inclusion of a “suicide” thruster in satellite design would allow the items to de-orbit when their service life was over. This could reduce some of the debris. This was proposed in the early ’60s, but the idea died.

Emission Nebula
Member
April 11, 2008 11:27 AM

Humans..pff. We are so dirty that we even have a pollution problem orbiting our planet. We are a parasitic species.

UNdistinguished
Guest
UNdistinguished
April 11, 2008 6:36 PM
Regardless of the merits of this article, the potential for debris striking a functional satellite or the ISS or one of the astronauts and causing irreparible damage is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter what the density or the size of debris, that it is there and a potential danger should be the major concern. How to clean up the mess is yet to be figured out. It may be an area of research and development to come out of greater commercialization and profit/loss considerations. Let the bean counters present the case to the companies and governments and someone will finds practical ways to clean up the debris. And, if a commercial outfit sees enough profit in the clean up,… Read more »
khyron
Member
khyron
April 11, 2008 11:43 AM
secondary payloads with no return on investment have understandably not mattered to commercial satellite builders. There was a fictional cleanup mechanism (for the nut-and-bolt sized debris) I read of some time ago jokingly referred to as “starbaggie” – loft an inflatable payload on a straight-up trajectory towards an area where it will miss all operational spacecraft when it inflates to 1-km diameter at LEO. It’s moving at relatively zero orbital speed and the impacts of debris with it produce more debris, but all of it is moving at speeds so low that they de-orbit within hours; in the meantime the pre-existing debris that hit it is slowed enough to reenter over the next week or so. I don’t… Read more »
sofista
Member
April 11, 2008 11:51 AM

Basura espacial, escombros espaciales, residuos espaciales: llámenlo como quieran, pero así como la basura o los residuos causan problemas aquí en la Tierra, de la misma manera en el espacio las etapas de cohetes agotadas, tuercas y tornillos de la construcción de la Estación Espacial Internacional (ISS), […] Fuente: Nancy Atkinson para Universe Today.

zeb
Guest
zeb
April 11, 2008 12:00 PM

I think the first step would be to get all the rocket boosters, dead satellites, and other large debris, attach retrorockets to them, and de-orbit them before they collide and create an even bigger mess.

zeb
Guest
zeb
April 11, 2008 12:03 PM

I just realized, once private spaceflight really takes off, those companies will have a vested interest in keeping their infrastructure intact. It might acually make such an effort realistic, even profitable.

This message brought to you by Orbtial Waste Managment…

Zech
Guest
Zech
April 11, 2008 3:53 PM

Even with these graphs, you have to understand that each of those pieces are miles and miles apart from each other, and each one of them are really small. One glove in 100 miles isn’t really going to make a lot of difference. There’s probably just as many asteroids as there is our debris.

adam
Guest
April 11, 2008 1:20 PM

couldn’t we send up a magnet into orbit to collect some of it?
after it collects enough to have been worth the effort, send it into the sun.

Nathan Zeldes
Guest
April 11, 2008 1:24 PM

It’s no doubt a bad problem, but surely the debris in these images is not drawn to scale. Space is big, as the Hitchhiker’s guide says, and the debris must fill only a very tiny fraction of it, which the images don’t convey.

What would convince me more is real data about collision cross sections and probabilities.

David Greiman
Guest
David Greiman
April 11, 2008 2:05 PM

I wonder how many satellites up there could be consolidated if more countries/companies worked together?

Roger
Guest
Roger
April 11, 2008 2:37 PM

Cosmic dust hugger. The amount of debris is so inconsequential to the amount of space out there that this whole article is just ridiculous. Go hus a tree, environmentalist wacko.

Vanamonde
Guest
Vanamonde
April 11, 2008 3:16 PM

The “space is big” argument loses when you hear that 80 Space Shuttle windows have be ruined! One nut at 52,000 kph will ruin your day if you are on a spacewalk. We are talking about freezedried blood all over the place. I was thinking on the lines of the “starbiggie” idea, only have a spacecraft in a retrograde orbit with radar search out debris and launch xenon balloons to deorbit the stuff. Xenon for a heavy gas and retrograde for maximum delta V.

Nigel
Guest
Nigel
April 11, 2008 3:21 PM

I’m glad you think the problem is inconsequential. But if I had 80 windows broken on my house I would be calling the problem anything but inconsequential.
Any junk in space is a problem, not least because much of it will fall back to earth eventually. If it happens to be a large chassis member or a battery it may very well not burn up completely on re-entry, and I do not want that landing anywhere near me.

Fred Garvin
Guest
Fred Garvin
April 11, 2008 3:24 PM

Roger, I say you are ridiculous and I hope a tree falls on your head. Maybe the decomposition of your body will be the first time you actually gave back to your home, this planet.

Emission Nebula
Member
April 11, 2008 3:26 PM

“environmentalist wacko” ? Seriously? Its a science article, dont like it, dont read it.

Space is big. Real big. But it doesnt make a difference when there are thousands upon thousands of tiny little objects flying, and this is the fun part, around our Earth!

And Vanamonde said pretty much said it. It really is like walking out in the cross fire of a shooting range when astronauts are doing space walks.

Why dont you go up there and see how big space is with these little bullets flying at you. Tell us how safe you feel.

Peter
Guest
Peter
April 11, 2008 3:53 PM

If you are writing a science article, can you at least give us your sources, or some links? Id rather that, then you just ripping this stuff of some site. So its not just unfounded work. Ive seen a lot of these images in a video, at the science museum in London. It actually said how these debris werent a problem. 6000 cars, drinig around the earth…. how often are they going to hit? And what if they can be a different heights?

TY Looney
Guest
TY Looney
April 11, 2008 4:03 PM

80 windows huh? How many miles did the shuttles accumulate to break that many windows? I bet if you drove your car that many miles, you would probably have more broken windows caused by road gravel. And how many of the windows were replaced because they were unsafe, and how many were replaced because they didn’t work well as a view port?

Scale drawings and statistics would have made this article more interesting, but as it doesn’t have these I’m gonna have to call it crap.

This article is crap.

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