Space: a wonderful thing. Too bad we’re ruining it every time we explore this wonderland.
Imagine this: you have to do an important assignment involving the internet and your internet suddenly just dies. The stupid page just keeps on going: “No Internet Connection.” You play on the dinosaur game for a bit, then get bored. You check the router. Its flashing light indicates that it can’t get internet connection. You try everything: unplugging it and re-plugging it, unplugging all the cables and re-plugging all the cables one by one, each time checking carefully it any are broken or didn’t fit in properly.
All normal. It still doesn’t work.
You sigh and decide to watch the live TV. It doesn’t work. You call your Mum or Dad to catch up on events. All you get is static. Then this stupid recording going: “Sorry, the call can’t connect. Please try again later.”
You try your friend’s phone. The same.
Now, all you can do is wait.
Behind the scenes, we also lose GPS, Navigation and Asteroid Tracking. A scientist’s nightmare.
The thing is, every time we launch something into space, we are getting closer to this, sadly realistic, scenario. Vulnerable. Unprotected. Defenceless. We need to take action very, very soon.
To explain this, you must go to the low earth orbit, where most of the satellites we launch stay. They can be there for centuries because of the thin atmosphere and the low gravity, and that’s where we want them to be. They will eventually get slowed down enough by the air and get pulled down to Earth, getting burned by atmospheric pressure and friction, but some pieces of shrapnel stay and that is the problem.
Rockets leave their metal fuel containers to fall back down to Earth, or burn up in the atmosphere. Most of it stays in space though. If we travel to space for a few more decades, Low Earth Orbit will become a mess of shrapnel from missile tests and explosions. And this shrapnel will orbit the Earth at such immense speeds that it will go faster than a bullet and if this comes into contact with anything that we want up there… it’s dead. And it will be added to the pieces of shrapnel that are already orbiting the Earth.
This is a map of what we already know is in the atmosphere:
(A map of the debris in space. All the dots represent the debris orbiting Earth)
These pieces of shrapnel have a range of sizes ranging from a the size of a pea to the size of defunct Satellites and are travelling at a speed of 30,000km per hour. This is so fast that it’s like shooting a plasma (what the sun is made of) gun at something. This can be achieved by only a pea-sized piece of junk.
The debris (approximately 1cm in diameter) is so fast that when it hits something, it vaporizes and releases enough energy that it can punch huge holes in some things, deeming them useless. And these pieces never come alone. They come in huge hoards, absolutely tearing down their victim, giving it no chance.
The problem is that there are very important satellites up there, like communication satellites, GPS and navigation. There are satellites collecting weather data, asteroid tracking and other things that we would be very vulnerable and naïve to the elements without.
The worst thing though is not 3 of or 4 satellites being destroyed every year. The worst thing is an unstoppable chain reaction that would turn very useful things into junk.
When satellites collide, they don’t just stop and fall out of the sky. They are so fast that they go through each other, losing no speed, creating a cloud of small metal parts too small to track, but lethal. All it needs is two satellites colliding in just the right way. You see, Satellites have a set orbit around Earth. So, if they collide in a certain point, they can go on to destroy other Satellites in their wake, ever widening the circle of shrapnel, broken Satellites and debris. Every victim makes more bullets, which, in turn, search for victims. After a few years, this will become a wall of destruction always hungry for more, until there is no food. This is, if we don’t take action.
There are lots of ideas and prototypes for machines that will bring debris back towards Earth, low enough to burn up in the atmosphere. Lots of them are ready to be tested. One of the most seriously considered are ‘capture and return’ machines. They are basically small satellites with a net that are programmed to recognize and capture things and bring them back to a place where they can burn up in the atmosphere. There are machines equipped with harpoons and a parachute for bigger things. They produce atmospheric drag, to slow them down enough to burn.
There are lots of sci-fi submissions too. For example, there are magnets which send a strong magnetic pulse at junk that disorientates the magnetic parts in them, sending them back to burn in the atmosphere. This is safer than the ‘capture and return’ machines as this doesn’t involve touching the object. This makes it more protected form turning into junk as well. There are lasers for the small pieces of debris and they can vaporise junk instantly from far away. For bigger pieces of shrapnel, the laser will flatten the side of it, pushing it towards a safer orbit.
With prototypes like these, we may just have a chance of cleaning everything up.