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Space NASA Science

Low Earth Orbit Junk Yard Nearly Full 443

Posted by Zonk
from the get-a-vacuum-up-there dept.
vlado4 writes "The New York Times has up an article on the amount of space junk in Earth Orbit. According to NASA officials, the amount of stuff we've put into LEO is at critical levels. Additionally they have great graphics of the nearly 1000 new pieces resulting from testing the new Chinese anti-satellite weapon, as well as the damage to Hubble's solar array. The litter is now so bad that, even if space-faring nations refrained from further interference, collisions would continue to create more clutter just above our atmosphere. Space debris appear to be a difficult problem to deal with and may hinder future space exploration."
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Low Earth Orbit Junk Yard Nearly Full

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  • No problem (Score:5, Funny)

    by 2.7182 (819680) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:51AM (#17906178)
    We'll just have the Chinese clear it out with their new laser death beam things.
    • by Salvance (1014001) *
      In all seriousness, I wonder if there's any way to solve this problem? Would a super-strong electromagnetic connected to a series of huge satellites orbitting in the wrong direction clear out the space junk?
    • by rucs_hack (784150) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:33PM (#17906990)
      "We'll just have the Chinese clear it out with their new laser death beam things."

      that will never work unless they can breed sharks that can survive in space..
  • Heh (Score:3, Funny)

    by Moby Cock (771358) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:52AM (#17906192) Homepage
    I hereby claim ownership of the concept of the space zamboni.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:52AM (#17906196)
    Space debris appear to be a difficult problem to deal with and may hinder future space exploration.

    Sure, but it also prevents stuff from comig in. Things like alien landers, etc. Or in an earth hostility only mode, it is a cheaper, and more effective, vresion of the Star Wars defense. Put more up there and let it shield us.
  • Solution (Score:5, Funny)

    by EveryNickIsTaken (1054794) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:53AM (#17906200)
    Launch a new ball of garbage into orbit to propel the old ball of garbage away from earth. It's foolproof.
  • Magnets. Giant magnets. Giant floating, magnetic balls like the boss in FFII for SNES. That'll solve the problem.
  • How bad are we? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SQLz (564901) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:56AM (#17906266) Homepage Journal
    Not only are we destroying our own environment, our planet is surrounded by floating trash.
    • by rblancarte (213492) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:15PM (#17906636) Homepage
      Does this make us the hillbilly's of the galaxy?

      What's next, a space station on cinder blocks?

      RonB
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Not only are we destroying our own environment, our planet is surrounded by floating trash.
      I applaud your progressive sense of guilty despair. Not only is it enlightened, it's constructive as well!
    • Re:How bad are we? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Intron (870560) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:33PM (#17906994)
      Not really. Decay time due to drag for LEO is fairly short. Debris in orbits below 300 km (where ISS lives) falls in less than 30 days. Debris up by the Hubble can stay up for years, but will fall eventually. Here is a chart [spacefuture.com] of orbital decay vs. altitude.
      • Re:How bad are we? (Score:5, Informative)

        by careysub (976506) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @02:16PM (#17908834)

        Not really. Decay time due to drag for LEO is fairly short. Debris in orbits below 300 km (where ISS lives) falls in less than 30 days. Debris up by the Hubble can stay up for years, but will fall eventually. Here is a chart of orbital decay vs. altitude.

        This is correct. At low enough altitudes space debris does not cause a run-away debris scenario. This point was made in the New York Times article - if the Chinese had conducted their test at the ISS orbital altitude there would be no long term problem (just a medium term one for the ISS).

        In fact drag automatically clears debris below about 700 km, eventually, but not above that altitude. There was a good article on this a year ago in Science: "Risks in Space from Orbiting Debris" by Liou and Johnson (20 January 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5759, pp. 340 - 341). They published a debris vs altitude chart for 2004, 2104, and 2204 showing that (assuming nothing else is launched into space), the existing debris cloud would be entirely cleared below 400 km in 100 years, and at least reduced below today's density between 400 and 700 km. Above that altitude the density keeps climbing century after century. By far the worst hazard is between 800 km and 1050 km.

        This limits the hazard to a certain band of orbital altitudes, a fact not brought out in the news article. It isn't a denial of space by any means, but it is a significant restriction on usable orbits.

    • Petri Dish (Score:2, Interesting)

      by scopius (973293)
      Put a culture in a petri dish, and the population increases exponentially. After a lapse in time, the waste material created by the culture follows suit. At some point in the petri dish, the waste starts killing the culture and the population begins to decrease and eventually die out. This can be charted as a bell curve. We are all in a giant Petri Dish and our waste will eventually kill us.
    • Not only are we destroying our own environment, our planet is surrounded by floating trash.

      And so are our oceans -- 2 millions tons of it according to an article I saw yesterday.

  • The Garbage Scow (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Gr8Apes (679165) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:57AM (#17906272)
    Didn't Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov detail this problem years ago and posit that a space garbage service would have to be setup to collect this stuff?
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:57AM (#17906276) Journal
    All these debris collide with one another and create fine dust covering the earth. It will reflect just enough sunlight to reduce the amount of absorbed radiation to counter the global warming. What a great relief! Last momement reprieve, brought to you by Frank Merrywell.
  • Hah--! (Score:3, Funny)

    by EinZweiDrei (955497) * <einzweidrei@wildmail.com> on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:57AM (#17906288)
    Hey, wait, I played Math Blaster -- I am ready for this .
  • CERISE satellite (Score:4, Informative)

    by amightywind (691887) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @11:59AM (#17906334) Journal

    A year later, apprehension rose as the fuel tank of an abandoned American rocket engine exploded, breaking the craft into 713 detectable fragments -- until now, the record.

    The NYT calls out the US but makes no mention of the the loss of the CERISE satellite [seds.org] by a fragment of an exploded Ariane upper stage in 1997.

    • Because the NYT hates America, right? Glad you rectified their egregious oversight.

      They don't "call out" the US. They happen to mention that as a small part of a larger story that really "calls out" the Chinese, if anyone. But we can't let any slight against the US, no matter how small or even entirely in your head it might be, go unchallenged. And of course, the best way to excuse anything is to point out that someone else is also doing it.

      Rah! Rah! Rah! We're number one! USA! USA! USA!
  • But seriously... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Panaqqa (927615) * on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:00PM (#17906342) Homepage
    This is a HUGE problem. Considering that kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity, think about how much damage even a small chip of paint can do at orbital speeds (low Earth orbit = approx. 5 miles per second). Then think of a 2 lb. chunk of metal at the same speed (8 times the speed of a rifle bullet).

    Right off the top of my head I can't think of a feasible way of beginning to clean this up. Perhaps large orbital superconducting magnets (easy to maintain cryo temperatures in space) for the ferrous stuff, but what about ceramics and all the other junk?

    This has the potential to make what is usually the safest part of space travel (sitting there in orbit) the most dangerous part, unlike the historical danger zones of liftoff and reentry.
    • Leave it alone (Score:3, Insightful)

      by amightywind (691887)

      Right off the top of my head I can't think of a feasible way of beginning to clean this up.

      You leave it alone and it will go away. The drag forces on small objects in LEO will cause their orbits to decay in 3-5 years. Debris in higher orbits is another matter.

    • is its unstable due to the resistance from the thin atnosphere up there, even the IIS has to be boosted on a fairly regular basis and that is pretty big.

      so long term all this debris should come down and burn up.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Annirak (181684)
      It is NOT easy to maintain cryo temperatures in space. Disposing of heat in space is quite difficult, as your only means of heat loss is radiation and the sun tends to shine on whatever you're cooling most of the time.
      • by Panaqqa (927615) *
        Hmmm... looks like I stand corrected on a few things here. Thanks for the heads up :)
  • Typical (Score:2, Insightful)

    by eno2001 (527078)
    This is typical of the shortsighted idiotic human being. Most people just seem incapable of thinking multiple steps ahead. It's a pretty obvious problem that clear thinking would have revealed from the get go. But, as is the human way, it was far easier to just forget about the problem until it interferes. Of course as soon as someone would have suggested that we find a way to clean up the space junk early on, they would have been derided for getting in the way and worrying about petty concerns. Humanit
    • but the ones who do the real damage are the faithless negative types

      know anyone like that?

    • by Detritus (11846)
      Some of it was accidental, like the expended rocket stages that exploded well after being shutdown due to something igniting the residual propellants in the tanks.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ScentCone (795499)
      Humanity disgusts me

      And yet, here you are, still breathing. I guess you're waiting until you can take more out with you, or something? I know, it's getting more and more expensive to build underground lairs and doomsday devices and whatnot. But if you just step out in front of bus today, you can avoid all of those management and finance headaches, and still immediately cease being disgusted.

      BTW, which nascent technology's 40-years-from-now problems are you accurately predicting today, and acting to co
      • Re:Typical (Score:4, Funny)

        by Shiptar (792005) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:53PM (#17907410)
        Global warming. I burn all my garbage, vote republican and bought a fortress on a mountain.

        The sooner I get rid of you guys the better.

        Killing yourself is never the answer, killing everyone else is a better and less selfish solution.
    • Re:Typical (Score:5, Funny)

      by Red Flayer (890720) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @01:12PM (#17907738) Journal

      Of course as soon as someone would have suggested that we find a way to clean up the space junk early on, they would have been derided for getting in the way and worrying about petty concerns.

      Bah, it's hubris to think that mankind has put enough stuff in LEO to affect the entire orbital space.

      Furthermore, what's to say that natural sources don't put more space junk in LEO than human processes?

      And who cares if we've "filled up" LEO -- surely technological advances will enable us to deal with the complications as they arise.

      And why should we (the US) have to bear the biggest burden of reducing the trash in LEO, when developing nations (those without a space program) get off scott free? It's not like we're the major contributor or anything.

      Besides, the jury is still out... plenty of independent* scientists dispute the findings of this study, and we should take no action until there is consensus.

      *Independent: funded by the "other side" of the interested parties
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      It's a pretty obvious problem that clear thinking would have revealed from the get go.
      It's very easy to go round finding mistakes that people have made and then criticize them with the benefit of hindsight. If you're the kind of person who likes to wallow in self-loathing for humanity you can spend all day looking for examples. But please, spare the rest of us.
  • new moon (Score:2, Funny)

    by mdemonic (988470)
    Maybe it will become a new moon some day, and we could inhabit it, and create a new layer of orbiting junk
    • by smbarbour (893880)
      I look forward to the day when man will land on an orbiting katamari. ...ducks

      I can hear the promo now... Don LaFontaine: "Katamari Damacy... This time, it's for real!"
  • by compact_support (968176) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:02PM (#17906374)
    Didn't somebody design a really cheap system of kamikaze satellites that would grapple the dangerous pieces and de-orbit them into the atmosphere? By really cheap I mean ~10,000 dollars. Surely we could put a couple of those on the ISS in case it looked like something was coming for it. I know it's expensive to launch the things, but AFAIK they're about the size of a propane tank for a BBQ and could be launched in vast numbers on a single rocket. The space is so large we only need to worry about the stuff in the space we WANT to be in or go through. All the geosynchronous stuff is in a much higher orbit, so we only need to worry about the stuff in LEO and the stuff going through it. It shoudn't be a problem to plot a course through it, and we can clear the orbits as we go.
  • by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:04PM (#17906414) Homepage Journal
    We've broken Space.

    I guess we'll just have to go back to throwing our crap exclusively into the air and oceans. Last one to the beach with a six-pack is a rotten egg!
  • by realmolo (574068) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:04PM (#17906424)
    NASA needs to cut a deal with Blizzard. Make each of the pieces of "space junk" an ultra-rare item in World of Warcraft that the players have to go and collect themselves.

    The problem will be solved in 3 months.

  • Dear China, (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:05PM (#17906440)
    It seems you missed the announcement, the space junk race has been canceled. While your actions are impressive, and as irresponsible as any superpower has ever been, there is no need to attempt to catch up with the US and the states formerly known as the Soviet Union.

    You also might be interested to know that there has been a litany of terrestrial environmental mistakes made over the past century or so. While we recognize that it's you're right to fuck shit up on your own, we strongly suggest at least making an attempt to learn from mistakes already made.

    In summary, we all remember our first beer too, but come on, it's time to grow up a bit.

    Sincerely,

    The World
  • saweet (Score:5, Funny)

    by esobofh (138133) <khg@telus.GINSBERGnet minus poet> on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:05PM (#17906452)
    Soon those saturn bastards will envy OUR ring!!
  • by DrBuzzo (913503) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:06PM (#17906456) Homepage
    I presume it was known that the anti-satellite system would result in a bunch of big chunks. Someone needs to give them a bad tongue lashing. I'm shaking my finger at China right now and my eyebrows have come down. Let this be a lesson to you, china! Next time I'll use a more stern voice.

    At least it's LEO, so it won't be there forever... but perhaps for a long time.
    • You can use a stern voice as long as it does not jeopardize our trade relations. and by relations I mean China sending all its stuff here, and the US not sending anything in return. (unless you count pirated movies and music)
    • Someone needs to give them a bad tongue lashing.
      You're going to use YOUR tongue to lash the Chinese? I would've thought that be more of a tickle than a lash.
  • by Flwyd (607088) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:06PM (#17906474) Homepage
    All space software should now be written in a garbage-collected language.
  • go in the basement, turn off the gravity generator, wait a few minutes for the debris to float away, then turn gravity back on

    you people are so silly
  • On the one hand, we could sell salvage rights to the Ferengi.

    On the other, it would provide good cover for the 'Falcon after she fools GWB's fleet admirals...
  • Humans created the problem... and humans shall solve it with a giant solar-radiation blocking shield comprised of small bits of metal. we're saved!
  • Much of this can be ameliorated if not solved outright by launching only to lower and higher orbits. Lower orbits will be in the upper reaches of the earth's atmosphere which will clean out debris naturally. The orbital decay of the satellites can be matched to their expected operational lives and if launch costs can be brought down then additional station-keeping fuel can be placed aboard to help maintain the operational life until it is time for burn-up. Higher orbits will be in a volume of space that
  • Now if only we could create some giant space vacuum...
  • Ever see the movie Spaceballs [imdb.com]? There was that big vacuum robot maid-thingy that sucked up the air from Planet Druidia. Maybe some geeks at MIT could borrow that and modify it to suck up the debris?
  • Just build a big Roomba [irobot.com] thingy. That should get the job done in a few thousand years or so.
  • We love catamari....in space! Roll it up!
  • You gotta love that they list the ISS as a piece of Space Junk in their "Interactive Graphic".

    See here [nytimes.com]
  • Wasnt there a TV show called 'quark' or something 20 some years ago that addressed this problem, in a humorous sort of way?

    Why not do it for real?
  • Well, spheres. Put up several things that are big, low-density but deformable (gelatinous), and round. The problem with this debris isn't the size, it's the relative velocity. A bunch of gelatinous spheres could absorb the impacts and imbed the debris within themselves, acting like passive vacuum cleaners to clear out that junk. You want them to be big to maximize the chance of random impacts, you want them to be low-density so the junk is gradually decelerated instead of bouncing or fracturing off more
  • Maybe China was just trying to offset the global warming scale by putting up an umbrella of junk to block the sun? ;-)

    You KNOW this is going to get brought up by someone in the "global warming doesn't exist" club.

    Seriously, when I heard about China blowing up that satelite, the first thing that came into my mind was all the debre floating around up there. Getting vehicles to the space station, or other, is already like throwing a ball through a swarm of killer bees and hope to not hit one.

    LoB
  • Space debris appear to be a difficult problem to deal with and may hinder future space exploration.

    Well this will keep us where we belong -- and home, and not annoying the rest of the Universe. We've built our own fence.

  • I suppose I'll get shot to hell for proposing a possible solution, but here goes.

    Launch really large balloons (100's m in diameter) into orbit. Use a material that goes rigid under solar UV so it doesn't matter if they get punctured after inflation.

    Small debris - paint flecks etc. hit the balloon and vapoise themselves and some of the surface. Larger debris hits the balloon, punches through and out the other side, but in doing so loses some of its KE and drops into a slightly lower orbit, where atmospheric
  • " . . .speeding junk that formed more junk would produce "an exponential increase in the number of objects with time, creating a belt of debris around the Earth." "

    I guess someone didn't pay attention in Physics class. Speeding junk will coalesce over time because gravity attracts objects together. Of course there will be high energy collision events in which pieces are shattered apart, but there will be low-energy collisions and near misses where the objects stick together. The latter type will eventu
  • Planetes (Score:2, Informative)

    by Pwipwi (973243)
    Reminds me of that manga called "Planetes" about a team of space debris cleaners.

    The story started as a discovery-type vessel got hit by a screw which led to a window exploding, killing everyone.

    It's a pretty good reading imho, very informative for what's about to come in the space exploration adventure.
  • by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @12:53PM (#17907406) Homepage
    Makes me think of Planetes [wikipedia.org]...
    • This is *hugely* interesting.
      This looks at the economics of how "space garbage collectors" might be managed.

      "Planetes" is an outstanding anime - *very* well thought out for the medium-term future of space development. It has a richly envisioned, deeply layered world w/Power struggles (political, corporate), collapse of petroleum economy, widening divide between 1st & 3rd world economies. It is a Very well crafted series; a rich tapestry woven of thought provoking ideas.

      The gui "interface" they designe
  • Time for... (Score:4, Funny)

    by FuzzyDaddy (584528) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @02:29PM (#17909056) Journal
    An enormous low earth orbit marshmallow. And it will get toasted on re-entry!
  • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Tuesday February 06, 2007 @03:47PM (#17910424) Journal
    Oh my gosh... now you can combine a science degree with an environmental studies degree and get a PhD in Junk Science!

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