It’s no secret that humankind has managed to pollute our physical landscape in various ways. From consumerism to industrial waste to the presence of micro-plastics in the ocean, it seems there’s no end to the debris humans can generate.
However, we may also be leaving a trail of trash behind us as we explore outer space. Is it possible we have managed to pollute, not only the Earth, but also the atmosphere around our planetary home? And if so, where will we ever find a trash repository or develop another system capable of handling this interplanetary garbage?
The History of Space Debris
Known as space debris, this collection of man-made litter is the result of old satellites, expired rocket stages, and slowly disintegrating metal fragments. Years working and exploring in space have created a veritable landfill’s worth of garbage, all floating out of sight, above the atmosphere of our planet.
However, just because we can’t see space debris from our home on land does not mean it’s without problems. As of July 2013, more than 170 million bits of debris, all smaller than one centimeter, were estimated to be in space.
Additionally, hundreds of thousands of incrementally larger pieces were also identified, all floating without direction or destination. However, it’s no secret why they are there – that’s where we put them.
This space litter poses some dangers to other objects in orbit. In December 2016, there were estimated to be five satellite collisions with floating debris, each of which necessitated expensive repairs and presented a risk to important research programs.
These collisions also threatened the viability of future spacecraft missions and live satellites. Subsequently, the United States Strategic Command began tracking these obstacles in order to help avoid further damage and expense.
The altitude of the debris also affects its characteristics and its potential impact on life below. Any litter within 1,200 miles of the Earth is denser than the small rocky or metallic bodies known as space meteoroids. This letter consists mostly of dust from rocket motors, paint flakes, and frozen coolant from nuclear-powered satellites.
This “dust” is actually quite grainy and its potential effects can be likened to the manner in which the micro-plastics in our earthly environment are clogging up systems and compromising the ecological integrity of their surroundings. Whether they are in the air or on land, these tiny bits of foreign matter are changing the very makeup of our natural home.
Graveyard Orbit and Spacecraft Cemetery
Not just a catchy title, graveyard orbit is real place – a place where interstellar trash goes to die or to live on indefinitely, as the case may be. It is essentially a massive trashcan in space about 22,400 miles above the planet, where satellites and other minor spacecraft are jettisoned at the end of their operational lives.
This is done to reduce the likelihood of future collisions with floating debris and to make deorbiting maneuvers for some satellites easier. The graveyard orbit is further away (about 200 miles) from Earth. Being sent to a higher orbit means these objects are not in the way, providing a clear path for space trash that’s being sent out of orbit and back to the Earth, which is second disposal method for space debris.
Whatever isn’t lofted into graveyard orbit – or burned up by the friction of moving through space back into the atmosphere – can be aimed at particular landing sites on the Earth. This way, people and structures will not be put in danger by objects leaving orbit and returning to the earth.
For example, extremely large objects, like space stations in lower orbits, are sometimes dropped into a remote area of the South Pacific Ocean known as the Spacecraft Cemetery.
The Spacecraft Cemetery is located in the furthest possible place from human civilization – about 3,900 kilometers outside New Zealand. These vast depths of far-flung ocean now hold many unmanned satellites, freighters carrying human astronaut waste, and most remarkably, the entire decommissioned Mir space station from Russia.
Cleaning up Space Debris
In light of these facts, has anyone in the international world considered cleaning up the ever-increasing amount of space debris orbiting our planet? The answer is yes, although the attempts that have Artie taken place have not been especially successful.
Since 2014, the European Space Agency has been considering ways to develop “capture mechanisms” that would pick up debris. These mechanisms could potentially include nets, robotic tentacles, and harpooning devices.
A bit more advanced is the Swiss CleanSpace One, which is set to launch in 2018. CleanSpace One would send a private space plane to a satellite, where it could then facilitate cleanup in space. The plane, known as a Suborbital Reusable Shuttle, would be launched from the back of a modified Airbus A300 jumbo jet.