See the Dramatic Final Moments of the Doomed ERS-2 Satellite

The ESA's ERS-2 Earth observation satellite was destroyed when it re-entered Earth's atmosphere on February 21st 2004. Image Credit: Fraunhofer FHR

When a satellite reaches the end of its life, it has only two destinations. It can either be maneuvered into a graveyard orbit, a kind of purgatory for satellites, or it plunges to its destruction in Earth’s atmosphere. The ESA’s ERS-2 satellite took the latter option after 30 years in orbit.

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Space Junk is Going to be a Problem for Vera Rubin

Space junk could be a problem for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. Even tiny chunks of debris could create streaks in its images. Image Credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA/B. Quint

The Vera Rubin Observatory (VRO) is different than other large telescopes, and that difference makes it more vulnerable to space junk. Other telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, focus on distant objects. But the VRO’s job is to repeatedly image the entire available night sky for ten years, spotting transients and variable objects.

All that space junk can look like transient events, impairing the VRO’s vision and polluting its results.

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99% of Space Junk is Undetectable. That Could Change Soon

A map of space debris orbiting Earth. Credit: European Space Agency

Private and military organizations are tracking some of the 170 million pieces of space junk orbiting the planet, but they’re limited to how small an object they can detect. Only chunks larger than a softball can be tracked with radar or optical systems, and that only accounts for less than 1% of the junk out there.

But a new technique is being developed to resolve space junk to pieces smaller than one millimeter in diameter.

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ESA Plans to Eliminate New Space Debris by 2030

This image from the ESA's MASTER (Meteoroid and Space Debris Terrestrial Environment Reference) risk-assessment tool shows the dangerous debris orbiting Earth. Image Credit: IRAS/TU Braunschweig

What can we do about space junk? We know how much debris is in orbit, and we know the problem is getting worse. It’s our fault.

Our Earth now has a halo of orbital debris, and the ESA has a plan to stop contributing to the problem.

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Oops. Astronauts Lost a Tool Bag During a Spacewalk!

NASA astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli (top) and Loral O’Hara (bottom) team up during their first spacewalk for maintenance on the outside of the space station. Credit: NASA TV
NASA Astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli (top) and Loral O'Hara (bottom)

I know for a fact it’s one of the most annoying things that can happen.  I’ve done it lots; whether that be out at night with telescope or a bit of DIY but for sure it has to rate as one of the most frustrating things to happen. I am talking of dropping something you are using. Ranking high is dropping tools while you are actually using them..  Dropping a tool is one thing but imagine dropping an entire bag of tools, while in orbit!!!! Oops!

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A Russian Satellite Has Shifted Within 60 km of Another Spacecraft

Geostationary orbits are where telecommunication satellites and other monitoring satellites operate. This image shows one of the NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites. Image Credit: NOAA.

When it comes to saber-rattling, few countries employ it as much as Russia does. During their ongoing invasion and occupation of Ukraine, the country’s leadership has repeatedly threatened to use atomic weapons. But the threats don’t stop there.

A private company called Slingshot Aerospace says Russia has maneuvered one of their Luch satellites uncomfortably close to Western spacecraft in GEO (geostationary orbit.)

And it’s not the first time.

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Spaceflight is Polluting the Atmosphere with Metal

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Humans can’t seem to interact with the environment at all without fouling it in some way. From plastic bags in the ocean’s deepest regions to soot on Himalayan glaciers, our waste is finding its way into Earth’s most difficult-to-reach places.

Now, we can add metals in the stratosphere to this ignominious list.

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A Satellite Deployed a Drag Sail and Removed Itself from Orbit Five Years Early

The SBUDNIC satellite with its drag sail made from Kapton polyimide film, designed and built by students at Brown reentered Earth's atmosphere five years ahead of schedule. Image courtesy of Marco Cross.
The SBUDNIC satellite with its drag sail made from Kapton polyimide film, designed and built by students at Brown reentered Earth's atmosphere five years ahead of schedule. Image courtesy of Marco Cross.

In an age of increasing “stuff” orbiting Earth one big concern is what happens if one satellite hits another. The result could be an explosion, or a chain reaction of collisions, or the closure of an orbit. That would be catastrophic. However, a small satellite called SBUDNIC just sent itself back to Earth earlier than expected. It’s goal: to demonstrate a low-cost way to take care of space debris.

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If There Were a War in Space, Debris Would Destroy all Remaining Satellites in About 40 Years

The destruction of a single satellite could be catastrophic for our orbital endeavours. Image Credit: ESA

On one particular day in 2021, astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS must have felt a pin-prick of fear and uncertainty. On November 15th of that year, Russia fired an anti-satellite missile at one of its own defunct military satellites, Tselina-D. The target weighed about 1,750 kg, and when the missile struck its target, the satellite exploded into a cloud of hazardous debris.

NASA woke the crew on the International Space Station in the middle of the night and told them to take precautions and prepare for a possible impact. The Chinese space station Tiangong was also in danger, and multiple countries and space agencies condemned Russia’s foolhardy behaviour.

But there was no way to contain the debris.

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Researchers are Working on a Tractor Beam System for Space

This graphic illustrates how a servicer spacecraft could remove debris from orbit using electrostatic forces. Image Credit: Schaub Lab

Human technology is crossing another threshold. Tractor beams have been common in science fiction for decades. Now a team of researchers is working on a real-life tractor beam that could help us with our burgeoning space debris problem.

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