Unless we act immediately to reduce the amount of space junk floating around above the planet, Earth orbit will eventually become so choked with debris that anything we launch up there will be under dire threat of being destroyed in a collision.
That's the message that came out of the 6th European Conference on Space Debris, in Darmstadt, Germany, this week.
As of 2012, the European Space Agency's Space Debris Office had catalogued around 170,000 pieces of debris in Earth orbit — dead satellites, old booster rockets and numerous pieces left behind by all the launches there have been over the past 50+ years — and that's just what we know about. Estimates put the numbers much higher, with up to 170 million bits of man-made junk floating around up there that are larger than 1 millimetre.
While that might seem like something only a few millimetres across would be too small to cause any damage, the stuff in orbit is whipping around at incredible speeds (around 36,000 km/h). So, hitting a satellite with a piece of debris of that size would be like shooting it with a gun. Make the debris something that's a few centimetres across instead and it'd be like switching from the gun to a wrecking ball.
Act now, these scientists say, and we can avert disaster. Ignore the problem and junk will continue to build up, collisions will become more and more frequent, and this will only make the problem worse, turning a few large, trackable objects into thousands of smaller pieces that can cause a cascade effect of damage to other satellites in orbit.
As an example, in 2009, the U.S.'s Iridium-33 communications satellite collided with the Russian satellite Kosmos-2251. The impacted destroyed them both, spreading 2,200 objects around the planet that are large enough to be tracked, and who knows how many smaller objects.
Also, just this year, on January 22nd, another Russian satellite was damaged by debris that apparently came from a 2007 test of a Chinese anti-satellite weapon.
This video from the European Space Agency illustrates the growing problem in graphic detail:
The plan to deal with space debris will involve two parts. We must change the way we launch missions into space, to reduce the amount of debris we leave in orbit, and we must actively work to clean up the debris that is currently floating around above our heads.
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These clean-up efforts won't be cheap, but given that the estimated cost of replacing the satellites we currently have in orbit is around $130 billion (and that doesn't even count the economic costs of losing the services of those satellites until they can be replaced), it seems that we can't afford not to act on this.
“While measures against further debris creation and actively deorbiting defunct satellites are technically demanding and potentially costly, there is no alternative to protect space as a valuable resource for our critical satellite infrastructure," said Heiner Klinkrad, the Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, in a press statement.
"Their direct costs and the costs of losing them will by far exceed the cost of remedial activities."
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