Space: the final scrapyard?

Posted: December 23, 2015 by oldbrew in exploration, Travel

Space debris [credit: NASA]

Space debris [credit: NASA]

So far there are no scrap metal collectors for space junk, as this Science/AAAS report illustrates.

Humans are messy, and not just here on Earth. Now, you can see all the junk we’ve launched into space for yourself with a data-driven animation created for the United Kingdom’s Royal Society by Stuart Grey, an astronomer at University College London.

It all begins in 1957 when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik, a 58.5-centimeter-wide ball emitting radio pulses. A piece of the rocket that took it into orbit was the very first piece of space junk. The United States launched its own satellite, Explorer 1, the next year.

Almost every mission into space has created new debris, either from the launch vehicles, objects falling off satellites, or unintended collisions.

By the time the USSR launched the first human into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, there were 200 objects floating around up there. By 1980 we had landed a man on the moon and left nearly 5000 objects in orbit. And because of deep space exploration, not all of them are tiny. Entire rocket engines are lurking around up there.

The number of objects remained stable at about 9000 until suddenly, in 2007, a Chinese ballistic missile test exploded and added 2000 chunks of metal to the mix. In 2009, a couple of big satellites collided and added yet another 2000. You get the picture.

We now stand at about 20,000 known pieces of space debris bigger than an apple—that is, an apple capable of ripping through a steel wall at 17,000 miles per hour—and there’s bound to be more. Space is becoming a very cluttered place, making it all the more dangerous to send humans up there to our orbit and beyond.

Full report: Video: Watch 60 years of space junk accumulate in 1 minute | Science/AAAS | News

  1. Bloke down the pub says:

    At least Spacex are trying to bring their used kit back to Earth.
    Even the second stage, which wasn’t recovered, was de-orbited to crash into the Indian ocean. Not to say of course that some bits, like the payload fairing, might not stay in a low orbit for a while till they re-enter and burn up.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    Yes! sticking a landing, and where you want it is a BIG deal. It remains to be seen if the machinery might be reusable but this is a start. The people at SpaceX deserve a big Hurrah!

  3. colliemum says:

    Cor Blimey! That amount of space junk ought to keep any self-respecting aliens away!
    Thanks for putting this video up.

    A very Merry Christmas to all here at Tallbloke’s Talkshop, with an extra curtsey in the direction of the tall bloke himself!

  4. Fanakapan says:

    SpaceX ????

    All things considered, Musk’s outfit seem to be marketing a limited effort as if it was a major breakthrough ? Much as Elon’s other ideas.

    The Saturn V was the big deal 50 years ago, and compared to that SpaceX’s efforts are laughable, except perhaps for the return of the primary stage. Even that is probably only possible because of the limited size of the vehicle.

    So many people shouting about SpaceX, and the ‘Kid’s’ chanting USA, USA, at mission control, yet the USA is pretty much reliant now and for the foreseeable future on the Russian’s for getting anything of any size into orbit ? As for the European effort, Ariane, I doubt thats at the stage where strapping humans to the top would be considered viable ?

    US rocketry is at this time, probably not much further advanced than Wernher would have been in the 50’s, but with the addition of modern materials ? And yet the sound of the Hosanna’s is almost deafening. Same principle being applied as that which has given those limited capability battery cars such a favourable public perception ? 🙂

  5. E.M.Smith says:

    The Chinese explosion was a test of an anti satellite weapon. It was designed to fill the local space with projectiles. The USA did one also.

    We are nearing the point of an “avalanche failure” where debis hitting debris spawns more projectiles until we are surrounded by a leathal blanket of sand at 17000 mph and space transport ends for 100 years.

    One good war with anti satellite weapons and the space age ends for generations. Most space launch capable countries have anti satellite ability… even Iran. It is only a matter of time.

  6. Bloke down the pub says:

    Fanakapan says:
    December 23, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Next year Spacex are planning to launch their Falcon Heavy, which is three times the size of the one they landed this week. Most of that should be recoverable too. We shouldn’t let Musk’s efforts in the automotive field influence our appreciation of what he has achieved in space flight.

  7. Fanakapan says:

    Let me know when they get even close to a deal that’ll provide for interplanetary rocketry.

    As pointed out by E.M.SMITH above, even countries such as Iran have the capability to achieve what SpaceX are promoting as cutting edge.

    Its probably a sad fact that the USA has lost much of the hands on knowledge gained from captured A2’s through to the Apollo and Shuttle programs. Its what happens when budgetary constraints lead to cut backs, all the knowledgeable guys retire without passing on what they have learnt. Its the same reason that once mighty Britain now has to contemplate employing the Chinese to design and build nuclear power stations.

    As for friend Musk, he’ll be moving on to the train in a pipe deal between Los Angeles and San Fran. By the time folks wake up to the fact that SpaceX is a dead end, he’ll be long gone, and promoting some fantastic deal that’ll have the mystic power to persuade that he’s a visionary for our times 🙂

  8. Russ Wood says:

    There was a Stan Schmidt SF story some years ago, where the protagonist founded a space company SPECIFICALLY to clear LEO of space junk. Now, maybe, there might be some serious money for that?