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.
A Russian KOSMOS 2499 satellite broke up last month — for a second time — according to the Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron. In a recent tweet, the Space Force said they are currently tracking 85 individual pieces of debris at an altitude of 1,169 km (726 miles). The breakup occurred on January 4, 2023, but the reason for the disintegration remains unknown.
At this high altitude, it will take decades for the debris to deorbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and presence of this debris in an increasingly busy region in Earth orbit.
The European Space Agency successfully tested a solar-sail-type device to speed up the deorbit time for a used cubesat carrier in Earth orbit. The so-called breaking sail, the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) was deployed from an ION satellite carrier in late December 2022. Engineers estimate the sail will reduce the time it takes for the carrier to reenter Earth’s atmosphere from 4-5 years to approximately 15 months.
The sail is one of many ideas and efforts to reduce space junk in Earth orbit.
“We want to establish a zero debris policy, which means if you bring a spacecraft into orbit you have to remove it,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General.
Scientists at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) have devised an ingenious way to combat the growing problem of space debris. The team fitted a drag sail to a Long March 2 rocket and successfully launched it in July this year. Rocket launches often leave discarded booster stages in low-earth orbit, adding to the pollution of near-earth space. The pilot testing for the sail came as a surprise to many space agencies when, a day after the rocket’s launch, the 25 square meters deorbiting sail was unfolded.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye-in-the-sky in orbit around the Moon – has found the crash site of the mystery rocket booster that slammed into the far side of the Moon back on March 4th, 2022. The LRO images, taken May 25th, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater formed by the rocket’s impact, posing a new mystery for astronomers to unravel.
October 4th, 2022, will be an auspicious day as humanity celebrates the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Space Age. It all began in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite ever sent to orbit. Since that time, about 8,900 satellites have been launched from more than 40 countries worldwide. This has led to growing concerns about space debris and the hazard it represents to future constellations, spacecraft, and even habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This has led to many proposed solutions for cleaning up “space junk,” as well as satellite designs that would allow them to deorbit and burn up. Alas, there are still questions about whether a planet surrounded by mega-constellations is sustainable over the long term. A recent study by James A. Blake, a research fellow with the University of Warwick, examined the evolution of the debris environment in LEO and assessed if future space operations can be conducted sustainably.
Observers have been tracking a chunk of space junk, waiting for it to strike the Moon. It should’ve hit the far side of the Moon, and hopefully, orbiters will have images of the impact site, though that might take a while.
The origins of the junk are in dispute. Some say it’s a spent booster from a Chinese rocket. Others say it’s from a SpaceX rocket. So far, nobody is claiming it.
Last month, astronomers reported that a discarded upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, launched 7 years ago, was on a collision course with the Moon. The rocket in question carried NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, where the still-operating observatory provides advance warning on solar wind activities. The leftover rocket stage, meanwhile, became a floating piece of space junk orbiting the Sun. Its ultimate fate was unknown, until last month, when astronomer Bill Gray predicted that it was bound for an impact with the Moon sometime on March 4th, 2022.
This week, Gray, who has been tracking the object ever since, released an update on the situation. He confirmed that there is indeed a rocket stage on course to crash into the far side of the Moon, but it’s not a SpaceX rocket at all. Instead, it’s a Chinese booster: the upper stage of the rocket that carried China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission to the Moon in 2014.
A team at Purdue University developed a drag sail to attach to satellites to help them de-orbit to combat space debris. Unfortunately, the rocket carrying the test device, launched by Firefly Aerospace, exploded shortly after launch.
As of 2020, there were over 19,000 pieces of individually tracked space junk in orbit above the Earth. Of those, a mere 2,200 were operational satellites. As more and more satellites go up, the risk of collisions increases. And what are governments doing to stop it? Basically, nothing.