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Climate Change Contributes to Space Junk Problem

Artists rendition of an explosion from an upper stage of a rocket. Credit: ESA

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


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aodhhan June 29, 2010, 4:14 AM

    I can’t find the entire study on this, so this does give me a bit of pause; along with the fact what was released was so short.

    Density isn’t the only factor with the atmosphere that satellite pilots worry about. How far the atmosphere expands is another. If the atmosphere expands to a great extent, it will also become less dense at certain higher altitudes. I find it hard to believe they would leave this fact out, but they seem pretty hardline about the number “300 kilometers”.

    Realistically, 40 years at one altitude just isn’t enough. The Earth’s direct climate isn’t the only factor. Weather from the Sun also can play havoc with atmospheric expansion. To do a correct study, they really need to be a little more aggressive with the number of samples taken at different locations, and bring up all the factors invovled… not just pin it all on CO2 levels.

    The article does bring up a valid point about space junk. Solving it isn’t devided by political party lines. It’s devided by risk / cost analysis.

    Yes, there is a lot of junk in orbit… yet believe it or not there is still a lot of space too. However, the cost of losing a satellite has gone way up in the past 10 years. Whole economies can become affected if the right satellites are suddenly out of operation, and NASA and other space agencies are starting to get pressure from all political parties to find an answer…because the blame will shift to them if something happens.

    The other problem is how to do it. There are as many opionions as there are feet in shoes. None of them efficient or cheap, and in a profit motivated world with shrinking budgets… launching something to collect garbage doesn’t make money.

    Like anything else in this position… only talk will happen until a disaster strikes. It will take a huge disruption in communication and financial economies before the world gets together to actually solve this… unless the public stands up and demands it now… which I don’t see happening. How many letters have you written to your government representative on this subject?

  • Spoodle58 June 29, 2010, 8:34 AM

    Hi Aodhhan, I agree with you on that, I couldn’t find anything myself.

    Nothing will be done on space junk until probably some space tourists on a virgin galactic flight get killed by hitting some space junk in X years time.

    Maybe the only solution is a global space launch tax (any launch pays a per kg including vehicle mass tax) and then using this fund to get a private company contract to clean up LEO, how they go about that is another set of challenges.

  • wjwbudro June 29, 2010, 10:47 AM

    How about another “x-prize” like challenge.

  • William928 June 29, 2010, 3:57 PM

    Perhaps BP has a solution, since they’re so successful in cleaning up and mitigating oil rig spills.

  • Spoodle58 June 30, 2010, 3:30 AM

    LOL thats good, and a good point, if we are having problems cleaning up oil spills down here, what hope do we have in cleaning up LEO.