The Future of Space Travel is Yucky

July 14 2008 / by jcchan
Category: Space   Year: Beyond   Rating: 7 Hot

Ah, space tourism. You ditched Paris or Tokyo to the dismay of your spouse and now sit some 600 miles above Earth with an ice-cold Mojito in hand. “See, honey? This isn’t so bad.” As you take a sip the pilot speaks over the intercom about some turbulence. That’s fine you think, it can’t be bad as the bumpy airplane trips to Los Angeles back when you were a kid.

Just then, you see gold specks scream pass the window at 17,500 miles an hour, followed by the loud thud of a space helmet that leaves a considerable dent in your window outside. The entire space-plane trembles violently as red lights flood on. The pilot reassures that it was just space turbulence and to strap on seat belts. “This wasn’t mentioned in the catalogue” you thought, your spouse giving you a look that you know all too well.

This may not be the common vision of space tourism but the reality is that since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik back in 1958 there is an estimated one million pieces of junk floating in orbit. Of those, 9,000 objects are bigger than a tennis ball, large enough to cause catastrophic damage to moving space shuttles, satellites, and space stations. Most are pieces from old satellites and garbage left behind by previous missions. Adding to this mess are nuts, bolts, and screwdrivers that have errantly drifted into space from missions, and an expensive Hasselblad camera with exposed pictures still inside.

According to the European Space Agency, of the 5,500 tons of material in orbit, 93% is junk that includes parts of old spacecraft, depleted rocket boosters, garbage bags ,and even nuclear coolant. Each piece can and are dividing into more pieces. Only 7% of the material in orbit is operational spacecraft in use.

Besides posing an ethical problem of using our orbit as a landfill, the junk pose a big problem to current and future missions because of their ultra-high velocities in orbit. At 17,500 miles per hour, a millimeter speck of paint has the same amount of energy as a .22 caliber long rifle bullet, a pea sized piece has the lethal potential of a 400-lb safe traveling at 60 mph, and a tennis ball sized piece of metal is essentially 25 sticks of floating dynamite.

So what can we do about this junk? Is there a way to get it out of orbit? Perhaps zap it? Or give it a nudge? (cont.)

No economical method exists now to clean up this 50-year junkyard, but scientists have begun proposing possible solutions to counter this growing problem.

- A materials scientist from the School of Mechanical Engineering at Tel Aviv University is developing Nano-Based Blanket to protect spacecraft and nanoscale ‘cages’ containing silicon that can react with oxygen to prevent polymer degradation.

-A robot garbage collector that shifts orbit by throwing around a weighted tether and attaches ‘Terminator’ tethers to space garbage. The Terminator tethers will then push the junk into the atmosphere where it will burn up.

-A ray gun, shooting lasers at pieces of space junk so they will shift and burn up in the atmosphere

-A half-mile wide NERF ball that would disrupt space debris and cause them to lose energy and altitude. The only problem is how to keep it away from functional satellites.

Space is so vast and infinite that who ever would have thought all our junk would come back to haunt us 50 years later. But with emerging nations like China joining the Space Race, perhaps it’s time to take space dumping just a bit more seriously.

Then again, garbage is a great way to learn about civilizations as we have seen in our history. Perhaps a day will come when a space-faring race will stop by and find Earth a odd lump floating in a sea of junk.

“Where have all the garbage makers gone?” one of them would ask. We would have already made our mark on the universe.

Image courtesy of the European Space Agency

Besides orbit dumping, what do you think of dumping into outer space on longer missions?

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Comment Thread (6 Responses)

  1. It’s like those huge thousand square mile garbage heaps in the Pacific Ocean, only much more dangerous. Yipee.

    Posted by: John Heylin   July 14, 2008
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  2. What we need, gentlemen, is a colossal katamari.

    Posted by: gremlinn   July 14, 2008
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  3. I wonder how much space garbage men would get paid when they start cleaning up the mess. If they ever.

    Posted by: jcchan   July 14, 2008
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  4. @ gremlinn – LOL, space-based magnetic katamari cleaners may be the ticket. Or self-replicating robots that munch on the available materials in orbit.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   July 14, 2008
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  5. This does certainly take a little of the romance out of space travel….much like arriving at a beach strewn with trash.

    If it gets to the point where not only city lights and pollution but space junk is blocking my view of the stars, I will be the first to demand some kind of clean up.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   July 17, 2008
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  6. I hope we clean it up sooner than soon. When we wait until we start seeing visible changes on Earth it would be too late already! Just look at what’s happening with our Earth as we waited until the last few years to truly start cleaning up!

    Posted by: jcchan   July 17, 2008
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