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

Climate Change Contributes to Space Junk Problem

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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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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25 Responses

  1. Quasy says:

    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.

  2. tonyorlando says:

    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. These are the enablers of war (scientists). Oh, I almost forgot, a scientist will comprimise his principles for more (war) funding.

    NACA began as an emergency measure during World War I to promote industry/academic/government coordination on war-related projects. It was modeled on similar national agencies found in Europe.

  3. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    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?

  4. tonyorlando says:

    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 scientists create bombs, and all sorts of new gadgets that strokes the scientists ego, while killing many.

    And what is next, what are you getting funding for; we all would like to know. That is my point. You have no more reason being on this planet than anyone else. So p[lease, cut the self righteous “troll” talk. That was my point, you all could care less about humanity. If you did, you would quite your jobs.

    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.

    I bet you guys would be lousy plumbers, or even neighbors for that matter. And yes, I was rough on you guys because Auqa was rough on me the other day. So I had to step it up a notch so you would “get it”.

  5. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

    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. 😉

  6. jwu81 says:

    “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?

  7. Jorge says:

    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.

  8. Emilio says:

    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 cast ion pipe with manual roller pipe cutter in that cramped space? The cutter itself must have weighed over 30 lbs! Life is easy now.

  9. PatT says:

    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.

  10. DrFlimmer says:

    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”.

  11. Spoodle58 says:

    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.

  12. DrFlimmer says:

    @ 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!

  13. Quasy says:

    @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)

  14. DrFlimmer says:

    @ 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).

  15. Mike Lorrey says:

    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 there is less aerodynamic drag. The becalmed solar wind whips up fewer magnetic storms around Earth’s poles. Cosmic rays that are normally pushed back by solar wind instead intrude on the near-Earth environment.”

  16. websmith says:

    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 free. You don’t have to pay for it with a carbon tax. There’s nothing that you can do to stop it. You’re going to need your money to build the dikes as the sea rises or run your heaters as it gets cold.

  17. trux says:

    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 of waste in the space at current missions. The problem is rather with the old existing junk, that will stay in orbit longer. I believe Tonyorlando completely misunderstood the point.

  18. Aqua says:

    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…

  19. Spoodle58 says:

    @ 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.

  20. Olaf says:

    @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.

  21. Aodhhan says:

    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?

  22. Spoodle58 says:

    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.

  23. wjwbudro says:

    How about another “x-prize” like challenge.

  24. William928 says:

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

  25. Spoodle58 says:

    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.

Comments are closed.