When we think of the earth on a larger scale, we think of a rock made of stunning landscapes and immense ocean area. We often forget one other component of the earth which makes it unique -- the atmosphere. Unfortunately, like our oceans, our atmosphere is also cluttered with debris. Here is a picture for reference:
What is Space Debris?
Space debris is made up of both the debris left by the objects launched into space by humans and natural objects such as meteoroids. These objects orbit the Earth and have a chance to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. According to a NASA report, at least one piece of debris falls back onto the Earth every day and burns up in the atmosphere on its way back (NASA). As of 2020, about 128 million objects are surrounding the Earth with a total weight of 8800 tons. 34000 objects are larger than 10 cm, 900,000 objects are between the sizes of 1cm and 10 cm and there are about 127 million objects that are between the sizes of 1mm and 1cm. This includes parts of human-made objects like satellite parts and metal fragments from collisions with other space debris. 16% of objects are discontinued parts and 20% are made of unused and older parts of spaceships. The debris is sized from a fleck of paint to entire payload bodies. Space debris is an unfortunate problem that people hadn’t foreseen from the past when they launched man-made objects into space.
Why is Space Debris Dangerous?
According to Aerospace.org, the average impact velocity of space debris is around 21,600 mph; to visualize it, it is about 10 times faster than a bullet. Although modern spacecraft bodies are built to protect against space debris many collisions can cause more damage to the spacecraft and eventually cause mission failure. The debris colliding can also create further space debris and contribute more to the existing problem. An example of why space debris is very dangerous is because when the Russian Space Station, Mir which was launched in 1986 has been hit by objects large enough to dent the inner wall of the crew compartment. Another aspect that is often overlooked is the International Space Station which is much greater in size. A process called collisional cascading is when a collision leads to more debris which leads to more collisions and that enables the cycle to repeat again and again as the debris grows exponentially. For many years the likes of NASA and ESA have neglected the effects of space debris because they had thought that space around the earth was big enough to contain the debris left by mankind. Now with the addition of commercial space companies and a dawn of a new era of space exploration, there are many more opportunities for space debris to increase if proper precautions are not taken.
How to stop further production of space debris?
First, it is important to understand the types of man-made debris in Low Earth Orbit; objects that have been sent off into orbit from missions and other such operations, debris that has been released by crewed missions and the ISS, and finally rocket exhaust parts. A way to reduce all these emissions is by reducing the debris from spacecraft deployment and the use of tethers and exploding bolts to reduce the size of the debris within space around the Earth. Another way to reduce emissions by a manned crew is to use a method of bringing back the things thrown away by the crew, instead, having a spaceship has a detachable pod with its fuel and thrusters to return the waste to the Earth. The International Space Station uses docked space crafts to return the debris to earth or even let it burn in the atmosphere. To reduce the amount of rocket motor parts as they are a huge piece of debris production. Another part of space debris is the unused satellites and to combat that ground control uses the last remaining bits of fuel to slow down the orbiting spacecraft which will return the spacecraft tumbling back onto the earth. As it is tumbling the satellite will be burnt up in the atmosphere or calculated to fall into the Pacific Ocean where it would later be recovered.
What if the problem is not addressed?
If the problem is not addressed, the space debris will continue to grow as the cascading effect will only increase the problem. The problem has reached beyond the “tipping point” where it cannot be naturally resolved. This is where humans need to step in and put an end to the space debris problem.
Space Debris is truly a problem as continuing with no reforms will create an issue where humans will trap themselves on Earth. To cause change, one must raise awareness about the perils and problems of space debris and show concern so that national space administrations and space companies address the problem. There are many creative solutions to solve the issue but the more minds that are kept on solving the issue the more resilient and more efficient way to remove debris will be found. Many ideas have been proposed to clean up space debris by capturing it with nets, blowing pulses of air into the atmosphere, and even using a slingshot by using the impact of another piece of space debris. There is a high priority to solve this issue especially if humans want to be more inquisitive and explore space. Although there are problems here on Earth there are also problems surrounding it.