Three weeks ago, while setting a record for the most spacewalks, astronaut Peggy Whitson lost the shield she carried to protect her against being hit by space debris. The space shield floated away, becoming one of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of trash orbiting the Earth.
As Fox News
reports, while the space shield floated far enough from the International Space Station (ISS) to not pose a risk, it highlights a serious and growing problem that needs to be addressed before something serious does happen.
Today is the final day of the 7th European Conference on Space Debris
being held in Darmstadt, Germany this week. It is being reported that in a little less than 25 years, the amount of space debris big enough to destroy a spacecraft has nearly doubled. "We are very much concerned," said Rolf Densing, who heads operations at the European Space Agency (ESA).
To be specific, since 1957, more than 4,900 space launches have led to an orbiting population today of more than 18,000 tracked objects. These are objects, including non-functioning satellites, or fragments from some 250 breakups, explosions and collisions of satellites or rocket bodies.
However, of the more than 18,000 tracked objects, only 1,100 are functioning spacecraft. This means that 94 percent of all those objects are nothing more than junk. Additionally, there may be over 750,000 more objects, one centimeter (o.4 inches) or smaller floating around up there.
While something one centimeter in size may not seem big enough to be worried about, when they are traveling at a relative orbital velocity of up to 56,000 kilometers (34,797 miles) hour, they can seriously damage or disable an operational spacecraft, and collisions with an object larger than 10 centimeters (4.0 inches) will lead to catastrophic breakups.
If you envision a giant garbage truck that can float around sucking up pieces of space junk, think again. Dealing with the problem will require input from a number of technical disciplines. The ESA's Luisa Innocenti said Friday that a first mission to capture space junk is being planned, according to the Associated Press.
says that the agency receives a collision alert on its 10 satellites about once every week, and the ESA has to actually shift a satellite's position to avoid collision once or twice a year. So, it's not like they are sent up into orbit and then forgotten. There is some concern that should a mission to remove debris fail, it would add to the problem.