NASA Called Upon to Create Plan For Dealing With Space Junk
September 2, 2011

NASA Called Upon To Create Plan For Dealing With Space Junk


While NASA has "responsibly" used its resources in detecting meteoroids and orbital debris, the growing amount of space junk and the danger it poses to the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) requires additional funding for the U.S. space agency's detection and monitoring efforts, the National Research Council says in a new report.

According to an article by AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, officials involved with the report, which was commissioned by NASA, claim that cleaning up the estimated 22,000 space objects which are large enough for scientists to track from Earth could require "vacuuming up debris with weird space technology--cosmic versions of nets, magnets and giant umbrellas."

"The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts," Donald Kessler, chair of the committee that wrote the report and the former head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, said in a statement Thursday.  "NASA needs to determine the best path forward for tackling the multifaceted problems caused by meteoroids and orbital debris that put human and robotic space operations at risk."

Borenstein reports that the more than five-decade old space program has filled the planet's atmosphere with debris such as leftover boosters, parts dislodged during launches, broken bits from satellites, and more. The AP writer notes that while scientists have, in the past, reached agreements to limit the creation of new space junk so that the old can fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, there have been a pair of incidents recently that have made things worse.

"Two events in the past four years--a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapon test and a 2009 crash-in-orbit of two satellites--put so much new junk in space that everything changed," Borenstein said, citing the report as the original source of the information. "The Chinese test used a missile to smash an aging weather satellite into 150,000 pieces of debris larger than four-tenths of an inch (1 centimeter) and 3,118 pieces can be tracked by radar on the ground, the report said."

In an article for USA Today, reporter Dan Vergano offers one illustration of the dangers of this so-called space junk, writing, "The alarm came too late, and the six men aboard the International Space Station hurried to Soyuz escape capsules“¦ For a tense two minutes in June, they waited for the 'all clear' to come as an unexpected bit of space junk, likely a small piece of an old rocket body or spacecraft, zipped by at 17,000 mph."

The report, entitled "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs," suggests that NASA's increasing role in finding these meteoroids and pieces of orbital debris are "outpacing" the money they have available for these tasks.

According to the National Research Council press release, the report discovered "numerous areas" where the U.S. space agency should change or improve their work in this field.

"For example, NASA should initiate a new effort to record, analyze, report, and share data on spacecraft anomalies," they wrote. "This will provide additional knowledge about the risk from debris particulates too small to be cataloged under the current system yet large enough to potentially cause damage.

"In addition, NASA should lead public discussion of orbital debris and emphasize that it is a long-term concern for society that must continue to be addressed.  Stakeholders, including Congress, other federal and state agencies, and the public, should help develop and review the strategic plan, and it should be revised and updated at regular intervals," the council added in their statement.

The changes should be implemented as soon as possible, Kessler seems to suggest.

"The longer you wait to do this the more expensive it's going to be. Given the economy, we'll probably end up putting it off, but that's really not very wise. This scenario of increasing space debris will play out even if we don't put anything else in orbit," he said, according to a September 1 story by Guardian Science Correspondent Ian Sample.

Furthermore, the National Research Council said, "Some scenarios generated by the agency's meteoroid and orbital debris models show that debris has reached a 'tipping point,' with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures."


Image Caption: Debris objects in low-Earth orbit. Credit: ESA


On the Net: