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China Earth NASA Space Science

Report Warns of Space Junk Reaching a Tipping Point 105

Posted by Soulskill
from the bad-news-for-the-shuttle-oh-wait dept.
intellitech sends this excerpt from a Reuters report: "The amount of debris orbiting the Earth has reached a tipping point for collisions, which would in turn generate more of the debris that threatens astronauts and satellites, according to a U.S. study released on Thursday (PDF). ... The amount of orbital debris tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network jumped from 9,949 cataloged objects in December 2006 to 16,094 in July 2011, with nearly 20 percent of the objects stemming from the destruction of the Chinese FENGYUN 1-C satellite, the National Research Council said. ... the panel made two dozen recommendations for NASA to mitigate and improve the orbital debris environment, including collaborating with the State Department to develop the legal and regulatory framework for removing junk from space. The study, 'Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs,' was sponsored by NASA."
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Report Warns of Space Junk Reaching a Tipping Point

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    When it's time to play Planetes for real.

  • EDDE (Score:4, Interesting)

    by anti11es (167289) on Friday September 02, 2011 @06:16PM (#37291938)
    It looks like they've worked out a possible solution to clearing out debris in LEO [space.com].

    A small fleet of net-flinging spacecraft could clear every big piece of space junk out of low-Earth orbit within a dozen years, according to a researcher working on the concept. Each spacecraft, known as an ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE), would capture orbital debris in a net, then drag the junk down out of harm's way. The EDDEs would draw their power from the sun and from Earth's magnetic field rather than rely on costly chemical propellants, helping keep costs down, said Jerome Pearson, president of Star Technology and Research, Inc.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      What magic material will they make this net out of?

      • by Rogerborg (306625)
        Vacuum Extruded Snake Oil. Get in quick before the smart money pushes the share price up!
      • Re:EDDE (Score:4, Informative)

        by anti11es (167289) on Friday September 02, 2011 @06:35PM (#37292126)

        What magic material will they make this net out of?

        This PDF [aiaa.org] slide deck has some additional details. It describes them as "50-g mesh nets", I couldn't tell you how they are supposed to work.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Doesn't metter. AS long as the net is moving at the same speed as the debris it's trying to capture.

        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          Which means you need tons of fuel or way to generate power. So either hellishly expensive to build or hellishly expensive to fuel and launch.

          • Which means you need tons of fuel or way to generate power.

            No, just a way to generate thrust. Which they have. No fuel involved.

            So either hellishly expensive to build or hellishly expensive to fuel and launch.

            Or slow. Which it is.

        • Re:EDDE (Score:4, Funny)

          by petermgreen (876956) <plugwash@@@p10link...net> on Friday September 02, 2011 @06:57PM (#37292324) Homepage

          AS long as the net is moving at the same velocity as the debris it's trying to capture.

          Fixed that for you ;)

          • Wouldn't that be pretty worthless, turning these magic net ships into just another piece of space junk that never manages to catch (or catch up with) the crap it's supposed to be picking up?

    • Substitute net for box and you have a much less likelihood of objects not being captured by being too small and you have a better choice of strong materials. Only problem then is velocity. Realistically though, this potential problem will only be tackled once its potential is realised (i.e accident costing millions or someone dies).
  • until somebody die from it. sorry, but it's been that way for centuries.

  • That we literally shit up every single place we go. Do we have a genetic predisposition to fuck things up, or is it just 200,000 years of learned behavior?
    • by geekoid (135745)

      That's true with every living thing.

      • by mark-t (151149)

        Really?

        Whales have been around a heckuva lot longer than we have and don't seem to have messed things up things at all.

        You may want to consider qualifying your proposition to more specific cases.

        • by Belial6 (794905)
          I don't study whales professionally, but I would wager that whales shit where they eat. It is only their low numbers that make them look like they are not fouling their living space.
          • by mark-t (151149)

            Considering we are talking about space junk, I believe that the GP was referring to metaphorical, not literal shit.

            And besides, literal shit isn't even all that problematic... heck, it makes wonderful plant food, and the plants, in turn, can feed other creatures... so if you are going to only talk about literal shit, the system could actually stay fairly balanced.

            Show me another creature that spoils their environment with excessive production of things that are *NOT* biodegradable, and just end up wast

            • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday September 02, 2011 @09:34PM (#37293346) Journal
              Does the veritable holocaust that occurred when the first green plants started their uncontrolled emissions of powerful oxidizing agents into the atmosphere, annihilating the previously anaerobic biosphere count?

              Humans probably win on points because of the sheer creativity of their pollution, and the fact that they do it despite having brains large enough to predict that they will suffer for it; but they aren't exactly the first organism to synthesize something that didn't (yet) have anything evolved to break it down.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Genetic predisposition.

      Before technology and overpopulation we produced waste that the rest of nature would take care of, just like every living thing produces waste that other living things live on. Waste in itself is not a problem, and we aren't wired to treat it as a problem. The problem is that in evolutionary terms we learned how to produce waste that isn't part of natural cleanup cycles at an amazing speed and in amazing quantities, while we're only starting to learn that we need to clean it up oursel

  • Leave it to China. What's next, more lead-flavored freeze dlied ice cleam for the ISS crew?

  • Kessler Syndrome (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Friday September 02, 2011 @06:25PM (#37292024) Homepage
    There's an idea dating back to the late 1970s of "Kessler Syndrome" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome [wikipedia.org] in which repeated collisions of objects in orbit will result in so many debris objects that they will become a self-reinforcing problem (since when debris collides with other bits of debris the result is a lot more smaller pieces now in different orbits from the original large pieces). The level at which things become inconvenient is well before where we hit full on Kessler syndrome, but it may well be that one won't get much warning before Kessler syndrome starts to take hold.

    There's a very real danger at this point that we will soon run into a real Kessler syndrome situation in low-Earth orbit. This would be really bad since this is both a really useful area to have satellites and the area where it is cheapest to put them in orbit. We have taken a few steps to help matters. For example, it became apparent that the Delta rockets were causing a lot of space debris and the more recent versions have been redesigned to minimize those issues. Unfortunately, many rockets from other countries and some other US rockets still have serious problems. There's no indication that China is taking any serious steps to minimize space debris. There have been some attempts to require people who put up satellites to have plans for either deorbiting them or parking them in graveyard orbits. That's now being done for most civilian satellites, but we don't know what if anything is being done for military satellites. This is in some sense one massive tragedy-of-the-commons type situation.

    The current engineering solutions for removing space debris are also lacking. There's a proposal to use lasers to ablate small bits of debris but this is politically not great since lasers powerful enough to do that could be used as weapons. Most of the other proposals have other problems or have the same problem: essentially any method of easily deorbiting objects is going to be a threat to satellites, and so for obvious reasons governments don't want other governments to have that sort of capability.

    One point which this new study makes that I had not seen before is the point that the calculated cost of satellite collisions is underestimated because not only do satellites collisions destroy satellites but they also create more debris which can then endanger other satellites and requires further tracking.

    • by Moof123 (1292134)

      It seems to me that this might be a solution. Small things de-orbit much faster. Also, after a collision all the pieces are less likely to be in a nice round orbit, and at least from a pure mass-in-space perspective it seems like a cascade would clear things out relatively quicker than trying to clean stuff up one piece of junk at a time.

      Anyone have any idea what sort of time scale we are on for all the close in stuff? Years, decades, centuries?

      • Small things de-orbit much faster.

        I am confused by this. How does the reduction of mass effect an orbit of an object? I used to think that greater mass meant that you had to have a larger speed to maintain orbit. By that logic a smaller object would fly off into space. But, I no-longer think it is that simple.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          > How does the reduction of mass effect an orbit of an object?
          Splitting a large object into multiple smaller objects increases the total drag while leaving the total mass unchanged. Atmospheric drag is a significant issue in LEO.

        • by Rhywden (1940872)
          I'm also not sure about the mass. I'm sure about the shape, however.
          It's atmospheric drag slowing stuff down and thus deorbiting objects. Remember that we still have an atmosphere at those altitudes, however miniscule. Without that, objects would keep on orbiting for quite a long time (e.g. until the sun swallows the Earth, or something like that).
    • by Korveck (1145695)
      I disagree that a laser that can destroy space debris is "politically not great" for its potential as weapon. Remember that space debris are very small objects, measured in cm or even mm. A laser powerful enough to destroy these small objects is hardly a powerful weapon, and there are plenty of much more powerful alternatives if harm needs be done. As a destructive force laser is horribly ineffective. With decades of research, the best use of laser in military is still intercepting missiles. I cannot see wh
      • by Rich0 (548339) on Friday September 02, 2011 @11:54PM (#37294004) Homepage

        I also disagree that lasers aren't "politically not great" for the exact OPPOSITE reasons as you. When has getting funding for a weapons system ever been a difficult political proposition? Sure, everybody else might not like the fact that you can now shoot down their satellites, but they're not going to complain too loudly about it since:

        1. Some day they might want to ask you nicely to shoot down somebody else's satellites for them.
        2. They don't want you to shoot down their satellites.
        3. They're going to be busy working on their own fancy lasers.

        This is why I chuckle every time I see one of those "Boy, the Europeans will stick it to the US with Galileo" threads. Under just about any circumstance where the US would actually deploy selective availability, the EU would be pretty likely to freely do the same thing with their own satellite network. About the only case where that wouldn't be likely to happen would be an all-out US vs EU war, which of course would never happen, and in any case would just result in a bazillion ASAT weapons turning LEO into a cloud of buckshot. While it seems that everybody loves a good US vs EU thread, the reality is that on most issues the US and EU have far more in common than they have in opposition, and most of the political theater is to keep the various fringes in the political parties happy and focused on something other than the fact that just about everybody in office everywhere is corrupt.

    • by anubi (640541)
      Thanks, Joshua, for posting that. I was aware of the problem of collisions generating debris, but had no idea how to refer to it.

      A concern I have had is if a small country, feeling threatened by a larger country, decides to launch a couple of tons of pea gravel into an elliptical retrograde orbit.

      Such a move would make space unusable for everyone.

      Consider these snippets from Applying the wisdom of Alexander the Great to Business Intelligence [expresscom...online.com].

      The solution was so brilliant that it is studied today in

  • Time to fire up the Space-Industrial-Complex! NASA, let's get our astronauts up there and clean that mess up! They can stick the debris in the ISS so that when it deorbits, it will carry down tons of space junk!
  • so that means another 20% of all space junk is from when we shot one of our satellites down [wikinews.org]
    and in the 80s, we shot down another satellite [wikipedia.org], so that must mean another 20%!
    and again russia shot down a satellite [nytimes.com]
    so that must mean 80% of all space junk is from rockets that blow up old satellites in order to maintain standing in some international geosynchronous pissing contest

    if we keep looking through history chances are other countries have shot down satellites as well, perhaps more than once. why,
    • by JoshuaZ (1134087)
      USA-193 was in a severely decaying orbit so its debris did not add substantially to the total space debris. Both the old Russian and US tests did not produce nearly as many pieces as the Chinese test. I think that again has to do with orbital dynamics (or just very low orbits) and other issues but I don't know enough to discuss that in detail (what a satellite is made of and how exactly it is hit could change a lot how many pieces it will fracture into). Keep in mind that individual pieces of space debris a
    • by geekoid (135745)

      The ones you list where in decaying orbits, and just about to reenter.

      China's satellite wasn't re-entering, it was in a pretty stable orbit and as such the debris will be there for a very long time.

      You are not stupid, stop acting like it.

    • Pointing out specific countries that cause pollution is obvious prejudice, possibly racist.

      We need to be more understanding, and just use the phrase "a country, which shall not be named, recently dumped a shitload of pollution into the environment. we cant tell you which country - that would be prejudiced"

  • "Gotta tune in pico waves, gotta tune out PCBs,
    gotta tune in market crash, gotta tune out polar shift,
    gotta tune in narrow minds, gotta tune out space junk,
    gotta tune in bombs, atomic lasers falling from the sky...
    where's my umbrella?"

    -- The B-52's, 'Channel Z' (Cosmic Thing)

  • WM has taken a real green bend lately -- generating power from landfill gas, etc. If you could show them how to generate electricity (and money) from space junk removal, they might bite.
  • All one needs is a panel to deflect objects downward and a robot that can get around it's orbit to get the job done. Put multiple drones up in multiple orbits. And yes I understand about the big difference in speed of objects but the solution is to angle the panel to deflect less, maybe enough for the next bumper drone to deflect it again. All we need to do is make the junk deorbit sooner and it will burn up. Plus the bumper drone actually gets a nudge up and a nudge faster with each collision. So in th

    • All one needs is a panel to deflect objects downward

      These are not ping pong balls. They don't "bounce", they "pummel"

      and a robot that can get around it's orbit to get the job done

      Not entirely sure what you are trying to get at, but if your thinking of little robots wandering out in space waiting to capture debris, consider the fact that space is very, very large and the objects are very small. Further consider that to get from one orbit to another you need delta V and delta V is expensive.

      Put multiple drones up in multiple orbits.

      See above

      And yes I understand about the big difference in speed of objects but the solution is to angle the panel to deflect less, maybe enough for the next bumper drone to deflect it again. All we need to do is make the junk deorbit sooner and it will burn up. Plus the bumper drone actually gets a nudge up and a nudge faster with each collision. So in the least if the craft is rugged and light enough it could get at least get some energy to put it in position for it's next collision.

      No, you really don't understand. Go read up on orbits, mass and orbital mechanics.

      This is a very, very hard problem to s

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      The problem is that every little piece of debris is in a different orbit. A spacecraft can only practically maneuver within a very narrow range of orbits (particularly around inclination) since every maneuver burns fuel. When you collide with something at a different inclination the difference in velocity is huge - thousands or tens of thousands of m/s. You'd need quite a bit of material to deflect something with that kind of impact speed.

      The laser ideas aren't bad ones (maybe). For small debris using a

  • When nothing interesting has happened for the last 50 years in {TOPIC} and you want to get more funding for {PROJECT}, the best way to do it is to trot out the term "Tipping Point."

    Note to self: Use the term Tipping Point more often.

    • There has been a 62% increase in the last 5 years and we are definitely approaching a point where new debris are created spontaneously even if we stop all new space launches. I don't think you realize how much our economies depend on satellites today.
  • It's the only way to be sure

  • Create a compound mixed with air under extreme pressure that when launched into orbit and released becomes a hundred foot wide(or more), NERF-like object that can absorb massive kinetic impacts of micro-sized objects. (Carbon nanotubes?) Even better, keep it attached to the rocket so you have a mobile orbit cleaner or have the missile detach a half-dozen smaller 'cleaners' once in position. After a few calculated orbits the controllers can use the rockets to speed up the sponges into a slightly higher posi
  • Send up a rocket full of nuts and bolts and blow it up --- only send it in a retrograde orbit. New space junk hits old space junk, orbital velocities cancel, everything falls and burns up.

    Oh, you wanted to keep some of the stuff up there? Sheesh, do I have to think of a solution to everything?

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      Aside from your obvious humor, I don't think this would work. On average for every air molecule in the room I'm sitting in moving towards my left there is another air molecule moving to the right at the same speed. On average the net velocity of all the molecules in the room I'm in is zero. And yet, the air molecules in my room don't suddenly all bang into each other coming to a complete stop and then fall to the floor.

      Now, if you increase the density of space junk such that it acts less like a gas and m

      • by russotto (537200)

        Aside from your obvious humor, I don't think this would work. On average for every air molecule in the room I'm sitting in moving towards my left there is another air molecule moving to the right at the same speed. On average the net velocity of all the molecules in the room I'm in is zero. And yet, the air molecules in my room don't suddenly all bang into each other coming to a complete stop and then fall to the floor.

        They aren't in orbit. And the collisions (which happen all the time; mean free path in a

        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Good point about elasticity.

          However, mean free path is going to be what kills putting buckshot in retrograde orbit. Maybe once a month two pieces will collide and de-orbit. The rest of the time space is just one big void full of ball bearings whizzing past each other in near-misses.

  • to absorb all of the space junk into one big blob.

  • With the forthcoming economic catastrophe the world will shortly face, almost nobody will be able to afford to launch any more satellites.

  • Just as a quick exercise without foreknowledge, one can imagine possible approaches

    - mop up the debris
    - explode the debris
    - slow down the debris so it falls out of orbit
    - selective approaches, safe corridors.

    The approach could depend on size and material.

    You shouldn't explode big pieces, it just makes the problem worse. It's like exploding approaching asteroids with bombs, it creates more projectiles. It could only work if you can explode things far enough so they become extremely small. Maybe exploding pi

  • by jwdb (526327) on Saturday September 03, 2011 @10:15AM (#37295922)

    There was a presentation a few weeks ago by G. Ganguli from Naval Research Laboratory where he suggested placing a layer of very fine dust in an LEO band. The dust should be too fine to cause any impact damage but thick enough that it increases drag, decaying the orbit of debris. A satellite would be unharmed, although its orbit would also decay slightly. You can even tune the dust's own decay rate to match that of the debris size you're targeting.

    Couldn't find that original paper online, but here's another: http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.1401 [arxiv.org]

  • by slick7 (1703596)
    Since the US no longer has the capability to send people to the ISS, Russia can't get their rockets to fly, thereby leaving the ISS to be abandoned. The problem is self-resolving.
  • As a few others have suggested, mopping up some of the smaller bits with a few large, gooey balls of some sort of aerogel might work. Statistically, the tipping point suggests that the likelihood of impact between a small fragment and a satellite (resulting in more bits of shrapnel adding to the debris cloud) is not very low. If there are on the order of a few thousand larger pieces up there serving as targets for the smaller bits and we can calculate the probability of impact between these, then we should

  • We should create a new space vehicle that could go into orbit, pick up the space junk with a robotic arm, store it and shuttle it back to earth. We could call it the "Space Shuttle"

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