Interstellar Trash

By Peter-Shaun Tyrell

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this week marked an historic day for space exploration. Philae was the first robotic spacecraft to land on a comet as scientists now have a unique insight into what exactly happens as they move closer to the sun. The Rosetta mission was an extremely difficult task. Landing a small frail craft onto an object made up of rock and ice hurtling at 18 kilometers per second, the risk of it being smashed into smithereens or completely missing the target is great.

However the danger does not start there. In fact, one of the most dangerous parts of any space exploration mission is getting out of the Earth’s stratosphere—the reason being is our skies are laden with debris, whose sizes range from one centimeter to a football to a whole disused satellite.

Since the ‘50s when mankind began its conquest of the stars, we have left over 600,000 “identified” pieces of space debris in our trail. Of course we can’t account for everything, an astronaut loses a spanner, the MIR loses a screw, and of course aliens. Taking these into account there may be even more.

Excluding the satellites that are just collecting space dust, you may think a centimeter piece of debris may not cause that much damage. Normally you’d be right, except these pieces of debris are traveling at breakneck speeds. If they hit any satellites or shuttles in use it can cause serious damage or complete destruction. In turn, the damaged satellites would break into thousands of pieces repeating the cycle and costing billions of dollars of damage.

The small size of the debris does give some advantage in trying to avoid collision. When an object is that small flying through a vacuum, even the slightest amount of concentrated light will prod it off course, saving any satellites in its path.

Electro Optic Systems, an Australian company, says that lasers provide a solution to the problem at hand. For now however, EOS is only tracking the objects with weaker ground lasers, the “Star Wars” stage of the project is still in the lab. Around 90 percent of all threats range from the five and 10 centimeter range which, Ben Greene, the CEO of EOS, told the BBC, “are very amenable to moving around with light.”

Such confidence in EOS was given by Lockheed Martin, which signed a deal in August to help build the ground lasers to track the debris. It may take the company 10 to 20 years to have the lasers capable of moving such spacial hazards but Greene says the company’s plans “are the most aggressive in the world.”

Despite EOS’s best efforts, scientists have said the threat has doubled in the past few years and only through international efforts will that threat be reduced.

Though other nations have headed this call as Japan’s military has taken up a watchful eye on the skies with the help of data provided by the US. Even Switzerland is joining the task force with their CleanSpace One, a program in which a satellite with “jellyfish-like tentacles” will be the janitor of our orbit as it will catch, stabilize, and carry space junk into the atmosphere for disintegration.

Still with plenty of ideas on the table and organizing to be done, at the moment there isn’t an active solution to offsetting the increase of space debris. According to Greene, there is going to be a critical amount of debris build up within 200 years and both scientists and studies agree with him, some stating that “catastrophic collisions would likely occur every five to nine years.” The study that backed these claims said these collisions would happen in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the most crucial altitude for observing the Earth, including climate observation.

One of the major problems is that companies and countries are still increasing the numbers of satellites into orbit without having plans for them to come back down. There is little adherence to these guidelines and scientists predict that the number of total collisions, debris, and satellites will all steadily rise over the next 200 years even with the most optimistic outlook.

In 2011, 400 metric tonnes was inserted into Earth’s orbit, more than 170 of which fell back into Earth’s atmosphere, less than half. The majority still orbits above us with increasing risk of being collided with by other debris resulting in more space junk.

The good news is businesses have found a way to make money in the clean-up of our LEO. EOS is one of many Australian companies taking advantage of a new source of income that benefits the planet at large. According to Greene, by the time they are fully operational they will save four or five satellites a year, saving trillions of dollars a year.

The balance in dealing with the threat seems to be tied as international efforts are becoming more concentrated, a need for constant updated environment and military satellites keep the future unpredictable on whether space debris can be dealt with.