NASA Aiming To Clean Up Space Junk With New Project Initiatives

There are currently multiple satellites and pieces of man-made debris floating in orbit around Earth, making it difficult to get a clear picture of our galaxy without distraction. NASA recently released a new report on “orbital debris remediation” with plans to improve the current space junk situation.

Space Debris Could ‘Completely Wipe Out’ International Space Station 

This week a Russian missile test blasted a decommissioned Kosmos spy satellite into more than 1,500 pieces of space debris, alerting the seven-person crew on the International Space Station (ISS), who were woken up to an alarm for potential emergency collision with the debris. 

The astronauts aboard the ISS were told to shelter in transport capsules that initially brought them to the ISS, while the station passed by the debris several times within multiple hours. Luckily the ISS was left damage-free after the incident, however, NASA is calling out Russia after the potentially fatal event. 

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Space debris like the kind floating in the atmosphere from Russia’s recent missile test can travel at speeds of more than 17,500 miles-per-hour, and even scrap metal the size of a pea could be potentially deadly when it’s that close to the Earth. 

“It doesn’t take a very large hole to basically explode the space station. In fact, a hole measuring just 0.5 inches (1.3 centimeters) wide could cause irreparable structural damage that could completely wipe out the space station,” said John Crassidis, a SUNY Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo in New York who works with NASA to monitor space debris.

NASA currently is tracking more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris that measure larger than a softball. It uses computer models to estimate the positions of millions of smaller pieces of junk that are too tiny to be seen. 

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The ISS has changed courses 25 times since 1999 specifically to avoid debris. The craft is covered in more than 100 impact shields known as Whipple Shields, to protect it from any smaller unknown pieces of clutter. 

“However, where the ISS itself is well protected from incoming projectiles, the astronauts who crew and maintain it are not — and that is where the biggest risk lies. Even an encounter with the smallest piece of orbital debris could kill an astronaut on the spot. Space suits are not protected at all,” Crassidis said.

“Imagine a marble going 17,000 miles per hour at you — it would go right through you, like a bullet.”

“Unfortunately, there are no international laws preventing nations from conducting low-orbit missile tests like the one Russia just did. It may take an astronaut getting seriously injured or even killed before the world takes the space junk problem seriously,” Crassidis added.

NASA will continue to monitor the debris cloud as closely as possible.

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Why ‘Space Junk’ Is A Growing And Dangerous Problem 

China’s space agency made headlines this month after debris from a rocket launched by them crashed harmlessly into the Indian Ocean this past weekend, however, the 20-ton section of the rocket originally was thought to land in a major city and cause severe damage. The section of the rocket burned up when it reentered the atmosphere. 

The incident itself created a much larger discourse about the concept of “space junk” and how dangerous it actually is. The size of the rocket section and confusion over its potential trajectory has many wondering how we can trust our world’s scientists to avoid future incidents such as this from occurring.

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The risk of rocket parts falling into populated areas has never been a bigger issue due to the fact that many countries have private companies that can expand space ambitions, which poses a major risk for existing satellite infrastructure and space exploration missions.  

According to reports there are about 6,000 satellites currently orbiting the Earth, and more than half of them are non-functional. If any of these satellites collide, they can break off and splinter into thousands of pieces that could strike other objects in orbit, and set off a massive chain reaction of complete space station destruction. 

NASA estimates there are at least 26,000 pieces of debris the size of a softball or larger that could destroy satellites or entire spacecraft simply due to the speed they’re travelling at. 

Andreas Kluth is a contributor to Bloomberg who believes that all of the world’s nations need to work together to clean up space: “The major powers must elevate space governance to the level of other threats to humanity, from climate change to nuclear proliferation. They should publicly label the problem a tragedy of the commons and signal their readiness to begin negotiations, regardless of other conflicts they have with one another. The U.S. is the obvious nation to take the lead. China, Russia and others should reciprocate.”

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Steven Freeland agrees with Kluth’s point, and added that beyond just laws, the world needs to create a concrete plan for cleaning up the mess of debris that currently exists as well. 

“Beyond the legal technicalities, debris removal raises complex policy, geopolitical, economic, and social challenges. Whose responsibility is it to remove debris? Who should pay? What rights do non-space faring nations have in discussions? Which debris should be preserved as heritage?”

Others also believe that the nation’s responsible for the debris need to be held accountable for the extreme damage that’s being done in space, as well as the amount of lives they put at risk on Earth when they can’t predict the trajectory of these falling debris. 

“Why is it possible for China, or any other space-faring nation, to launch massive rockets and let them fall to earth willy-nilly? The answer to that is policy failure: Despite regulations on space flight and conduct, the issue of rocket reentry is loosely and poorly regulated, so countries cut corners and take their chances that a falling rocket won’t hit anything major,” explained Alex Ward of Vox Magazine.