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The threat of space debris March 15, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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Space debris, the rubbish from old, defunct, or shattered satellites circling the Earth in an expanding sphere, has been a hot topic these last few weeks. Back in 2007 China came under fire for demonstrating its military muscle by shooting one of its satellites to pieces from the ground. In February two satellites collided in orbit at high velocity, spraying debris throughout space and causing fears of some of the rubble crashing down to Earth. While our growing extraterrestrial rubbish tip may seem like a pretty trivial thing to concern ourselves with, the threat it poses to our scientific and technological endeavours in outer space has become worryingly clear.

In the aftermath of the satellite collision, rumours started circulating that the servicing mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, planned for May, may be scrapped because of the risk of space debris hitting an astronaut on a space walk, or the space shuttle itself, with disastrous consequences. On Thursday, crew in the International Space Station were evacuated to its rescue capsule for several hours as a five-inch piece of space debris was on a possible collision course with the station.

Rob on Orbiting Frog has long been the expert on “tracking things overhead” and after the satellite collision in February he wrote a nice post on how anyone can track space junk with the help of Google Earth (download it for free from here). If you want to know what’s up there, give it a go. (Coincidentally, Rob this week also became a father for the first time – so hop over to his blog or send him a tweet to congratulate him!). Wired Science were quick to pick up on the issue and have written a number of posts on the topic. Here is their own how-to guide to tracking space junk, and here is an overview of the history of debris impacts on the Shuttle from publicly available NASA data.

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Comments»

1. Veejay - April 1, 2009

What can space debris do, when left in space?

Sarah - April 3, 2009

Well all these bits of junk travel at incredibly high speeds so if they impact with a working satellite, the satellite could well be seriously damaged, if not broken. The larger pieces are tracked by NASA but even cm-size pieces can cause damage to satellites. Space debris sometimes also falls out of its orbit and re-enters the atmosphere and crashes to Earth where it can do serious damage (so far there haven’t been any major incidents luckily). All the debris is simply making it riskier to put things into Earth orbit. That includes the Space Shuttle, which services the International Space Station and is due to perform a repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Wired Science blog has collected tons of data about space debris impacts, see for example here and links therein.

2. Ornido - May 1, 2010

Really risky these space debris, nice to see other people blogging about this too.

Here’s my take on it: http://tageswanderer.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/planetes-removing-human-junk-in-space/


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