Space Waste


Orbital debris around earth

This week, NASA found liquid water on Mars, elevating our hopes that we will find life there.   Since NASA plans to put people on the Red Planet, Ridley Scott worked closely with them to take his film beyond science fiction.

Since 1960, there have been 43 successful and failed space missions to Mars.

Each time we send a rocket into space, we leave traces of ourselves behind.  NASA and The Department of Defense are tracking more than 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth.  At speeds of up to 17,500 mph a relatively small piece of orbital debris can damage a satellite or a spacecraft.  The increasing amount of space debris is a danger to the International Space Station, space shuttles and all spacecraft with humans aboard.

NASA takes the threat of collisions with space debris seriously.  They have specific guidelines on how to deal with each one. These guidelines specify when the proximity of a piece of debris increases the probability of a collision enough that evasive action or precautions to ensure the safety of the crew are needed.

Orbital debris is any man-made object in orbit around the Earth which no longer serves a useful function.  Such debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.

There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth.  There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger.  There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.

Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities.  A number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material shown to be paint flecks.

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.

With so much orbital debris, there have been surprisingly few disastrous collisions.

  • In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.
  • On Feb. 10, 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial satellite. The collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the space junk inventory.
  • China’s 2007 anti-satellite test used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite and added more than 3,000 pieces to the debris problem.

NASA and the DoD cooperate and share responsibilities for monitoring the satellite environment.  An imaginary box, about a mile deep by 30 miles across by 30 miles long around any space craft predicts that the debris will pass close enough for concern.  Mission Control in Houston and Moscow work together to develop a course of action.

For example, these encounters can be known well in advance allowing time to move the space station slightly to keep the debris outside of the box.  This is cleverly called a “debris avoidance maneuver”.   Other times, the tracking data isn’t precise enough to warrant such a maneuver or the close pass isn’t identified in time to make the maneuver.  In those cases, the crew is moved into the Soyuz spacecraft that are used to transport humans back and forth from the station. They can isolate themselves from the station by closing hatches or they could leave the station if the collision caused a loss of pressure in the life-supporting module or damaged critical components.  The Soyuz act as lifeboats for crew members in the event of an emergency.

Mission Control also has the option of closing hatches between some of the station’s modules.

Debris avoidance maneuvers are usually small and occur from one to several hours before the time of the conjunction. Maneuvers with the shuttle can be planned and executed in a matter of hours. Maneuvers with the space station require about 30 hours to execute because the station has Russian thrusters. The same is true if the propulsion systems on one of the docked  spacecraft are needed because they are Russian or European.

Several debris avoidance maneuvers with the shuttle and the space station have been conducted during the past 10 years.  In a few hundred years the amount of debris will be so great that space operations will be severely limited.

Will Mars end up looking like earth, marked with debris?
Everything we send there will not be coming back.  And, only two Viking landers in 1976 were sterilized enough to kill Earth microbes.  NASA’s next Mars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, won’t be any cleaner because sterilization adds to the cost and complicates the design.
The Jet Propulsion Labs in Arizona took this beautifully pristine image of Mars’ liquid water.

This image shows Mount Everest. Visitors produce about 12,000 pounds of human waste a year.  A lot of it IMG_0992_3_4_tonemapped-1030x685ends up in waterways that nearby villages rely upon,  Alton Byers, director of science and exploration at the US-based Mountain Institute, told VICE News.

How You Can Help:

I don’t know! American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent more than 170 days on board the International Space Station producing 180lbs of faeces.  Nasa said this will ‘burn up in the atmosphere and look like shooting stars’.  What can I say after that?

Until next week,images

Garbage Girl




2 thoughts on “Space Waste

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s