When some devices, such as satellites, reach the end of their useful life, they remain in space and become what is known as “space junk”.
The activities that take place in space exert a great influence on human life. The artifacts responsible for enabling communication, the internet, ocean and land observation and weather forecasting, can do a lot of damage to still functioning satellites and other objects in orbit.
Space junk is any man-made object that has been placed into orbit around Earth and no longer functions properly. It can range from obsolete satellites to lost equipment, anything man-made that is no longer in use. According to the latest ESA report, more than 130 million pieces of debris measuring between 1 millimeter and 1 centimeter are floating in space without any purpose.
This is often referred to as “space smog” and can refer to a variety of objects such as satellites, spacecraft, and parts that have broken off from them. Different types of space debris can originate from a variety of sources, including rocket launcher upper stages, adapters used to carry multiple satellites, fragments created by explosions or collisions, solid fuel spills, and paint chips.
Millions of tiny pieces of junk in space
According to the ESA, there are around 130 million tiny pieces of space debris in orbit, along with over a million objects measuring between 1 cm and 10 cm. In addition, more than 36,500 larger objects measuring more than 10 cm are also present.
The number of objects that are sent into space each week is alarming. It’s even more troubling when you consider the size and power of some of these items. Recently, businessman Elon Musk attempted a test launch of his “Starship” rocket, the most powerful in history with almost 7,500 tons of thrust and 33 engines firing simultaneously. Its purpose is to transport astronauts to the Moon, although it unfortunately failed.
A space junk graveyard
Mankind has made considerable strides in space exploration since the initial launch in 1957. About 6,380 spacecraft have been launched into space and over 15,000 satellites have been launched into orbit. Of these, only 7,000 are still in operation. Initially, the challenge of getting rid of dead satellites and other objects in space was not adequately considered. As a result, objects that still had a useful life were added to existing debris rather than removed.
A major problem with dead objects in space is their potential to collide with other orbiting bodies, resulting in huge explosions that scatter fragments into orbit and create new debris. This was seen recently when the International Space Station almost suffered a collision.
Space debris is not controllable
In a recent interview with the Scientific News Agency of the National University of Quilmes, Marcelo Colazo – Manager of Technological Articulation at the National Space Activities Commission (Conae) – spoke about how technology is being used in space activities: “Satellites can change orbits if it is seen that they are going to collide with some debris, but as these have no fuel they are not controllable and their movement is governed by the laws of physics.”.
The European Space Agency (ESA) reported that over the past two decades there has been an average of 12 debris-causing events annually. This includes fragments created by explosions, electrical faults, and objects that naturally break apart due to space conditions. In the near future, the main cause of space debris production will be the collision between space debris and active satellites, surpassing any potential due to explosions.
What is done with space junk?
To address the growing problem of space debris, Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) regularly monitors and regulates the re-entry of objects to Earth. This is part of a global effort to reduce and manage debris in outer space. Colazo explains: “When we see that an object is in a very low area of orbit and can enter the atmosphere, we track it for several days. Then we define at what approximate latitude and longitude it will fall“.
The manager adds thatif the object falls into the sea and it is not dangerous, we leave it. If it falls somewhere on earth, the country that owns that waste has the right to claim it.“.
With information from: https://agencia.unq.edu.ar/