Nearly 30,000 objects race through orbit near Earth. That’s not just a problem for space

By | February 21, 2024

Once upon a time, there was an escape from the man-made chaos on Earth by gazing up at the night sky.

Not anymore.

Nearly seventy years after Sputnik’s launch, so many machines are flying through space that astronomers worry their light pollution will soon make it impossible to study other galaxies with terrestrial telescopes.

Then there’s space junk: nearly 30,000 objects larger than a softball hurtling a few hundred miles above Earth, ten times faster than a bullet.

And after NOAA used high-flying aircraft to sample the stratosphere for the first time in a generation, new science shows that the space race for profit is changing the skies in measurable ways and with potentially damaging consequences for the ozone layer and Earth’s atmosphere. climate.

“We can see the fingerprint of human space travel on stratospheric aerosol,” says Troy Thornberry, a research physicist at NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory. “Adding a lot of material to the stratosphere that was never there before is something we are considering, as is the enormous mass of material we are putting into space.”

The research found that 10% of particles in the upper atmosphere now contain bits of metal from rockets or satellites that fall out of orbit and burn up. As humanity becomes increasingly dependent on information beamed from above, the report predicts that man-made debris will make up 50% of stratospheric aerosols in the coming decades, equivalent to the amount created naturally by the Milky Way.

While there is uncertainty about how this will affect the ozone layer – and a complex climate system already in crisis – the commercial shift from solid rocket boosters on NASA’s Space Shuttles to the kerosene that powers SpaceX rockets has produced tons of new emissions each time of fossil fuels added. launch, while aging satellites create clouds of debris as they drift out of orbit.

“We’re talking about constellations of thousands of satellites that each weigh about a ton, and when they come down they act like meteoroids,” Thornberry told CNN.

According to the tracking site Orbiting Now, there are currently more than 8,300 satellites above the sky, and predictions about how many will soon join them vary widely.

More than 300 commercial and government agencies have announced plans to launch as many as 478,000 satellites by 2030, but that number is likely inflated by hype. The U.S. Government Accountability Office predicted that 58,000 satellites will be launched over the next six years. Other analysts recently estimated that the number likely to enter orbit is closer to 20,000.

But even the lowest estimates would have been unthinkable in the dizzying aftermath of Neil Armstrong’s one small step. The 1972 “Blue Marble” photo from Apollo 17 may have inspired Earth Day, but few thought about the orbital debris created before it until 1979, when NASA scientist Donald Kessler published an article titled “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt.”

Since then, “Kessler Syndrome” – depicted with some tension in the 2013 film “Gravity” – has become shorthand for industry concerns that too much space traffic will eventually create a vicious cycle of even more debris, leading to even more collisions. will lead until launches become impossible. .

In low Earth orbit, objects can collide at speeds of up to 23,000 miles per hour, enough to cause even the smallest debris to break the windows of the International Space Station. All told, it’s estimated that there are 100 million pieces of man-made debris the size of a pencil point floating in orbit—a major risk when doing business in space.

“Ten years ago, people thought our founder was crazy for even talking about space debris,” Ron Lopez told CNN as he strolled past the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. “Now you can’t go to a space conference without a panel or series of talks on the sustainability of space travel and the issue of debris.”

Lopez is president of the U.S. arm of Astroscale, a Japanese company competing for market share in the emerging field of orbital debris removal.

“During the Gold Rush, it was the people who made the picks and shovels who often outperformed the gold diggers,” he said. “And in a way, that’s exactly what we’re bringing to the market.”

An image of Astroscale's

An image from Astroscale’s “On Closer Inspection” mission, which space company Rocket Lab launched on February 18. -Rocket Lab

Lopez admits they’re still a long way from flying garbage trucks, circling recycling centers and a “circular economy in space,” but in 2022 Astroscale used a satellite with a strong magnet to capture a moving target captured during the same three-year mission launched. .

“It was the first commercially funded spacecraft to demonstrate many of the technologies needed to dock and rendezvous with other satellites,” he said. “We may move them, eventually refuel them, or in some cases decommission them to address the debris problem.”

A second Astroscale mission, launched from New Zealand by space company Rocket Lab on February 18, will take a closer look at space junk. The satellite, called “On Closer Inspection,” will observe the movements of a rocket stage left in low Earth orbit in 2009. Astroscale’s mission will use cameras and sensors to study the rocket debris and figure out how it might get out. track.

But with a pollution crisis painfully apparent on land, at sea and now in space, one of the most symbolic launches since Sputnik is scheduled for this summer when scientists from Japan and NASA launch the world’s first biodegradable satellite, which is largely made of wood.

A small step indeed.

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