Earth is a busy, bustling place that is increasingly getting polluted and littered. It seems as though we can’t help ourselves though, and have even been crowding the space above us with our space junk.
What is space junk?
Space junk is space debris – bits and pieces of old satellites, probes, and some booster rocket shells. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and moves at very high speeds, over 23,300 miles per hour!
National Geographic says that there are currently more than 500,000 pieces of space junk between 0.4 and 4 inches in rough diameter orbiting the earth. Plus approximately 23,000 pieces larger than 4 inches across. These can cause damage to satellites and the space station as they move at such high speeds.
Where does space junk come from? We have launched many satellites and rockets into space. What happens to the used stages from rocket launches, dead or damaged satellites, or the missions that are sent to study various planets once they have taken all the pictures they can and have outlived themselves? What about smaller things like tools that have escaped the grasp of astronauts or pieces of ships that have broken off while scraping by other stuff that is floating around? Where does all that go? Well a lot of it is floating around in near earth orbit. Some of it may enter earth’s atmosphere and burn up, but a lot of it is floating around in space, bumping and grinding against other junk, and creating more debris.
Sometimes, ships are brought back and put into a spaceship graveyard, which is at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, at Point Nemo. It is very far from human civilisation. So it turns out that we are leaving junk in space as well as at the bottom of the ocean!
Wait a second – can’t any of the old satellites be recycled?
America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is attempting to recycle parts of non-functional satellites, and to service functioning satellites. Project Phoenix is using robots to snap-off antennae from old satellites in earth’s orbit, and to reattach them to other satellites. By using functional components from dead satellites, space junk could become a major space resource.
Aren’t there any other efforts being made to remove space junk from near earth orbit? Yes, there are various approaches being tested out, but nothing concrete so far.
In the meantime, we continue to send more satellites and rockets into space, for space exploration, research, and even for higher speed internet access! It looks like there will be more junk we will be parking in space. It is essential to come up with viable ways to remove it, and also to recycle.
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Written by: Akash Dubey and Sunaina Murthy