How Long Will Space Junk Take to Burn Up? Here’s a Handy Chart

An artist's illustration of space junk. The problem isn't this bad yet, but it's getting worse year by year. Image: Tohoku University

If the Roman Empire had been able to launch a satellite in a relatively high Low Earth Orbit – say about 1,200 km (750 miles) in altitude – only now would that satellite be close to falling back to Earth. And if the dinosaurs had launched a satellite into the furthest geostationary orbit – 36,000 km (23,000 miles) or higher — it might still be up there today.

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A Steampunk Engine to Solve Your Satellite Woes!

In 1999, technicians from the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the specifications for CubeSat technology. In no time at all, academic institutions were launching CubeSats to conduct all manner of scientific research and validate new satellite technologies. Since 2013, the majority of launches have been conducted by commercial and private entities rather than academia.

Unfortunately, CubeSats have been held back until now because of a lack of good propulsion technology. In addition, there are concerns that with the proliferation of small satellites, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will become overcrowded. Thanks to Howe Industries and a breakthrough engine design (known as the ThermaSat) that utilizes steam to generate propulsion, all of that could change very soon.

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About 3% of Starlinks Have Failed So Far

Starlink

SpaceX has drawn plenty of praise and criticism with the creation of Starlink, a constellation that will one-day provide broadband internet access to the entire world. To date, the company has launched over 800 satellites and (as of this summer) is producing them at a rate of about 120 a month. There are even plans to have a constellation of 42,000 satellites in orbit before the decade is out.

However, there have been some problems along the way as well. Aside from the usual concerns about light pollution and Radio Frequency Interference (RFI), there is also the rate of failure these satellites have experienced. Specifically, about 3% of its satellites have proven to be unresponsive and are no longer maneuvering in orbit – which could prove hazardous to other satellites and spacecraft in orbit.

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Astronaut Drops a Mirror During a Spacewalk. Now There’s Another Piece of Space Junk

Oops.

Dropping a mirror on Earth is only minor cause for concern, perhaps about the potential of some upcoming bad luck. Dropping a mirror while on a spacewalk means creating a potentially dangerous new piece of space junk, all while thousands of people watch it happen, streaming live.  

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There’s a 1 in 20 Chance That Two Dead Satellites Might Crash Tonight (Update: No Collision)

Update. It looks like we didn’t roll a 1 on the d20, and the satellites passed each other without an impact. But this will probably become a more common occurrence as the skies get more crowded.

Over sixty years of space exploration have left their mark in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where thousands of objects create the risk of collisions. These objects include the spent first stages of rockets, fragments of broken-up spacecraft, and satellites that are no longer operational. As Donald Kessler predicted, the growing presence of “space junk” could result in regular collisions, leading to a cascading effect (aka. Kessler Syndrome).

This evening – on Wednesday, Jan. 29th – such a collision might take place. These satellites are the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), an old space telescope launched by NASA, the Netherlands, and the UK; and the GGSE-4 gravitational experiment launched by the US Air Force. These two satellites run the risk of colliding when their orbits cross paths at 06:40 p.m. EST (03:40 p.m. PST) about 900 km (560 mi) above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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A Television Satellite Might be About to Explode

On Friday (Jan. 19th), authorities at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that they had granted permission to cable tv provider DirecTV to begin the process of deorbiting their Spaceway-1 (F1) satellite. This was necessary ever since DirecTV detected a “major anomaly” with the satellite’s batteries which increased the risk of an explosion if its orbit remained unchanged.

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Can We Use Special Sails To Bring Old Satellites Back Down To Earth?

The growing problem of space debris in LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) is garnering more and more attention. With thousands of satellites in orbit, and thousands more on the way, our appetite for satellites seems boundless. But every satellite has a shelf-life. What do we do with them when they’ve outlived their usefulness and devolve into simple, troublesome space debris?

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Satellites Equipped With a Tether Would be Able to De-Orbit Themselves at the end of Their Life

There’s no denying it, we are facing an orbital debris problem! As of January 2019, the ESA’s Space Debris Office estimates that there are at least 34,000 pieces of large debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – a combination of dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and other assorted bits of space junk. And with thousands of satellites scheduled to be launched in the next decade, that problem is only going to get worse.

This is a situation that cries out for solutions, especially when you consider the plans to commercialize LEO and start sending crewed missions to deep space in the coming years. A team of scientists from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) has come up with a simple but elegant idea: equip future satellites with a tether system so they can de-orbit themselves at the end of their lives.

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Before We Ruin the Universe, We Should Follow Some Space Sustainability Guidelines

There are over 20,000 objects in orbit around Earth that are larger than 10 cm. Image Credit: European Space Agency.

There are 20,000 objects orbiting Earth at this moment that are larger than 10 cm. Out of that number, only about 2,000 are operational satellites. The other 18,000 objects are pieces of junk of varying sizes. But it’s not just junk: it’s dangerous junk.

If that doesn’t sound like a problem, keep this in mind: Thanks to SpaceX and others, we’re living in the age of cheap access to space, and we’re seeing more and more satellites boosted into orbit. The problem won’t go away on its own.

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Spot Failed Soviet Venus Probe Kosmos 482 in Earth Orbit

Venera-8

A ghost from the old Soviet space program may return to Earth in the coming years. Mimicking a campy episode of the 70s series The Six Million Dollar Man, a Soviet Venus lander stranded in Earth orbit will eventually reenter the atmosphere, perhaps as early as late 2019. Fortunately, this isn’t the “Venus Death Probe” that the Bionic Man Steve Austin had to defeat, but Kosmos 482 is part of a fascinating forgotten era of the Space Age and one you can track down in the night sky, with a little skill and patience.

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