An upper stage of a spacecraft exploding.  Image Credit:  ESA

Climate Change Contributes to Space Junk Problem

25 Jun , 2010 by

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The effects of climate change can be seen across the majority of the planet, but a new study reveals it is also affecting the space environment. New Scientist reports that increased carbon dioxide levels are cooling the upper atmosphere, which decreases the atmospheric density. This in turn affects how long defunct satellites, spent rocket boosters and other space debris stay in orbit, contributing to the space junk problem.

Atmospheric drag creates a braking effect on space debris, and eventually causes the various bits and pieces to drop out of orbit and burn up. Two researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK, Arrun Saunders and Hugh Lewis, studied the orbits of 30 satellites over the past 40 years, and recorded a gradual increase in the time they remain in orbit.

They calculated that at an altitude of 300 kilometers, the atmosphere is reducing in density by 5 per cent every decade. “The lower molecular braking means debris can remain in orbit up to 25 per cent longer,” said Lewis.

This raises the risk of collisions with satellites and makes it more hazardous to launch spacecraft. Space agencies and commercial launch companies may need to step up the current space debris mitigation procedures now in place, which include employing on-board passive measures to eliminate the potential for explosions from batteries, fuel tanks, propulsion systems and pyrotechnics, which helps reduce the number of objects in orbit. Or we may need to find a way to remove debris from orbit sooner rather than later.

Saunders and Lewis presented their work at a conference in Boulder, Colorado, last week.

Source: New Scientist

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Quasy
Member
Quasy
June 25, 2010 6:48 AM

Well, that’s not necessarily a bad news.

Less drag means less fuel to take to orbit for the satellite station keeping efforts. Moreover, less density in upper atmosphere means that the satellite engine can fire more early in the flight to orbit leaving the last rocket stage at a lower altitude where the drag is higher.

Also, the saved weight (from less fuel to orbit) gives space for implementing some kind of deorbiting “feature” for the last stage (and to strengthe and contain as much as possible any debris that may fall during the last stage burn and payload separation).

Not everything that comes from climate change is bad news.

tonyorlando
Member
tonyorlando
June 25, 2010 8:14 AM
Thanks all you scientists for furthering mankind’s trash in the sky. What a contribution you have given us. I read about this before, and felt there were a few of you smart guys addressing this. But as I see in your comments, that you think it is not only alright, but good for your ships because it has “less drag”. Please. There is an old quote that says the smarter you are, they dumber you are. Below is a message for Auqa who thought NASA stood for civilian space development. well, not so (not at all). Houston, we have a problem. And the problem is the egos and stupidity of those who already know everything; yet know nothing.… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
June 25, 2010 9:40 AM

Heh, I know an electronics engineer who builds hardware for probes and _still_ propagates antiscience such as climate denial. EEs can believe the darnedest things.

Wonder how he stave off the cognitive dissonance from this effect? I may have to ask.

@ tonyorlandy: That was quite some fire you started with burning all your effigys…, I’m sorry, strawmen, at once. But was there a point besides trolling?

tonyorlando
Member
tonyorlando
June 25, 2010 10:26 AM
You could have simply asked me to explain. The space ships take satellite in the sky, then they are used for purposes like finding minerals in other people’s countries so that we may have wars. India with the Maoists, or afghanistan; just to name a few. Then companies get on a waiting list until the governments move the locals away so you can mine there. Or, your ships in space bring satellites that spy on our phione calls, view us, and make wars more easy with eyes in the sky. Villagers die while you and I believe the cowarice news caster telling us lies all so they may buy the watch like on Catie kurics wrist. Or the… Read more »
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
Member
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
June 25, 2010 9:53 PM

tonyorlando:

The smartest guy I know, lives next door and he is a plumber. He works with others for a better future, and does not work to cause others problems.

Like, er…Click Here, dude. wink

jwu81
Member
jwu81
June 25, 2010 2:01 PM

“carbon dioxide levels are cooling the upper atmosphere, which decreases the atmospheric density”
Doesn’t CO2 cause global warming? Doesn’t heat rise? How can global warming cause the upper atmosphere to cool?
Doesn’t air and water get denser when cooled?
Does CO2 cause warming or cooling? Does adding heat cause expansion or contraction? When heated, does air expand or contract? Is this global warming science?

Jorge
Member
Jorge
June 25, 2010 2:21 PM

CO2 causes the upper atmosphere to cool by keeping more heat in the lower atmosphere, where global warming happens and all its meteorological consequences take place. It’s a kind of heat plug, preventing lower atmosphere heat to irradiate to the upper atmosphere and from there to space.

This is, of course, a huge simplification of a very complex set of phenomena.

Emilio
Guest
Emilio
June 25, 2010 2:28 PM
Old Senior Engineer whom I worked next to long ago use to say, “it’s just a piss in a ocean!” Well humankind has become so prolific that it has become hell of a piss! Conservatives still believe its is still just a piss I am afraid to say. Actually plumbing has become quite easy with wide use of PVC pipes. Few years back I was working on this fixer upper which had cast ion pipe plumbing going into the ground in the crawl space. The space was no more than 2 ft high with wet dirt ground. I needed to install branching section on to the main soil stack. Man, have you ever tried to cut large diameter… Read more »
PatT
Member
PatT
June 25, 2010 5:53 PM

CO2 causing the upper atmosphere to cool does make sense – it’s like insulation: beyond the CO2, it’s cooler, because CO2 “traps heat” (actually, solar radiation gets through, bounces off the Earth at a different wavelength which doesn’t pass through – but “traps heat” is a reasonable simplification).

So the atmosphere should cool as a result of increased CO2 – and since 1979 it appears that that’s what’s happening.

But you’re saying that because the outer atmosphere is cooler, it’s LESS dense?

That’s the part that doesn’t add up.

DrFlimmer
Member
DrFlimmer
June 26, 2010 1:16 AM

But you’re saying that because the outer atmosphere is cooler, it’s LESS dense?

Actually, this is true. But you have to think twice, before you get it!

Since the upper atmosphere cools, it has less kinetic energy and therefore drops down into a lower orbit, so to speak. This means that below the satellites the atmosphere is, indeed, denser than before. But at the orbit of the satellites (and the junk and everything else) the atmosphere became less dense, since the molecules have “fallen down”.

Spoodle58
Member
June 26, 2010 2:34 AM

Is this just another study done with the lazy conclusion that climate change is answer to the numbers.

I like to know if Saunders and Lewis have taken into account better spacecraft design to allow our birds stay up there longer. Also the upper atmosphere has not been extensively studied so how can they draw conclusions without a full understanding of the upper atmosphere, and outside influences that interact with it.

DrFlimmer
Member
DrFlimmer
June 26, 2010 6:57 AM

@ Spoodle58

Then tell me please, how you would explain less drag and friction in the same orbits?
And leave spacecraft design away, because todays satellites are not formed aerodynamically (the old ones weren’t either, of course), and are even bigger than before, meaning they have a much bigger “cross section” to interact with air.

And the answer “the atmosphere is gone” (including all possible variations of this sentence) is not sufficient, because we want to know, why the atmosphere could be / is gone!

Quasy
Member
Quasy
June 26, 2010 10:45 AM

@DrFlimmer

The atmosphere is not gone. It is just less denser a the same orbits (and more denser in lower altitudes).

Regarding spacecraft aerodynamics, you are right, the spacecraft is not aerodynamic, but certain features exist to lower the air drag. Please check the “night glider” mode of the ISS (the posture the solar panels of the ISS have when not in sunlight, in order to reduce the air drag)

DrFlimmer
Member
DrFlimmer
June 26, 2010 2:30 PM

@ Quasy

Yes, I know that. But why did the atmosphere become more dense at lower altitudes? Or in other words, why did it sink? And if it sank due to cooling, what caused the cooling?

These are my question for Spoodle58, when he disputes that it could be due to a warming troposphere (which implies less heat transfer to the outer parts).

Mike Lorrey
Member
Mike Lorrey
June 26, 2010 4:22 PM
Sorry but the claims in this story are absolute garbage. While Earth’s upper atmosphere has cooled and contracted, it is NOT because of CO2, it is because the Sun has been in a protracted solar minimum for several years with minimal 10.7 geomagnetic radio excitation of the upper atmosphere, minimal solar wind, and no solar flare activity. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2009/01apr_deepsolarminimum/ http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2009/29may_noaaprediction/ “According to the forecast, the sun should remain generally calm for at least another year. From a research point of view, that’s good news because solar minimum has proven to be more interesting than anyone imagined. Low solar activity has a profound effect on Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to cool and contract. Space junk accumulates in Earth orbit because… Read more »
websmith
Member
websmith
June 26, 2010 4:38 PM
As gravity causes space to shift towards the planet, the hydrogen and helium atoms that are present in every CCM of space are compressed closer together. As they interact with the planet’s surface, they are converted into heavier gases and even solids that collect and retain more heat. Even though they are warmer than the gases at higher altitudes, they are heavier and remain below the lighter hydrogen and Helium atoms. Cooler gas is more dense than warm gas all the time, but the sparsity of atoms at higher altitudes prevents it from making a difference. This article requires a lot of imagination and fabrication. The Earth’s climate changes and you are going to get the change for… Read more »
trux
Member
June 26, 2010 5:09 PM
It does not really require any big imagination. The greenhouse effect simply keeps the heat and radiation in the lower atmosphere, so the upper layer gets less of it, cools down, and hence shrinks. Imagine as if a glasshouse was build over the Earth – the heat stays inside, and oppositely, above the glass, it cools down. Just that with the greenhouse gases, the effect is not in a single layer (equivalent to the glass screen), but progressive with the atmospheric pressure (the lower you go, the stronger it is), hence heating the lower atmosphere. And what Quasy tells in the initial post is perfectly true – in fact we can use this effect to reduce the amount… Read more »
Aqua4U
Member
June 27, 2010 3:47 PM

Got hard hat?

Been giving a lot of thought to this problem. I like orbiting solar powered lasers to heat one side of an errant spacecraft and causing a well known residual repellent force to, over time, harmonically alter the orbital.

I like the possibility of using robotics to give new life to old(er) defunct spy satellites. And/or salvage prior to attaching a de-orbiting device – preferably a solar sail type.

I like a new shuttle system/design to recover rare earth an other components.

I’d like to clean up LEO and get down to biz…

Spoodle58
Member
June 28, 2010 6:37 AM

@ DrFlimmer
I’m not disputing anything, I’m just asking a few questions to see what Saunders and Lewis took into account, there measurements of the atmosphere are indirect (using the spacecraft) and this can lead to lots of error, as would any indirect forms of measurement.

@Quasy @trux
Thank you for answers in relation to my questions. I wasn’t aware that the ISS had so many drag issues, very interesting reading up on that.

@Aqua
Dito on that last line.

Olaf
Member
Olaf
June 28, 2010 2:21 PM

@tonyorlando
Can you please turn in your computer, internet, TV, shut down any lights, bring back your cell phone, and stop using any medicines. Because these are created by those evil scientists and by paying for these items you bought them you are guilty of destroying this world.

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