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Earth Space Science

Ugly Truth of Space Junk 185

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the hands-off-my-junk dept.
fysdt writes "Dealing with the decades of detritus from using outer space — human-made orbital debris — is a global concern, but some experts are now questioning the feasibility of the wide range of 'solutions' sketched out to grapple with high-speed space litter. What may be shaping up is an 'abandon in place' posture for certain orbital altitudes — an outlook that flags the messy message resulting from countless bits of orbital refuse. US General William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, underscored the worrisome issue of orbital debris during a presentation at the National Space Symposium on April 12, 2011. In a recent conference here, Gen. William Shelton, commander of the US Air Force Space Command, relayed his worries about rising amounts of human-made space junk."
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Ugly Truth of Space Junk

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  • by LunaticTippy (872397) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:09PM (#36088032)
    We could send up a crew of young people to have wacky adventures and fixate on each other. In their spare time they could clean up junk manually. I like the manga/anime that deals with this, Planetes [wikipedia.org]
    • Re:Send up a crew (Score:5, Interesting)

      by EdZ (755139) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:34PM (#36088246)
      The creators of PlaneteS basically stated that they tried to get everything about oribital mechanics correct, except for the central premise of hiring people solely for collecting space junk, which would be massively ineffective and inefficient.
      I've always been partial to the 'puffball' technique: using a large (on the order of tens of kilometres in diameter when deployed), low mass loose mesh of fine fibres, with any incident debris vaporising the fibres and coming to a halt over a distance of a kilometre or so, without breaking it up and creating more debris.
      • What about paint chips?
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Why not just slap a big solar power array in GEO or at a Lagrange point and just shoot the debris with lasers? You can slow it down or speed it up to perturb its orbit. Seems a lot easier than trying to catch stuff without catching stuff you don't want to catch.

    • For a moment there I thought you were describing JJ Abrams desecration of Star Trek.

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        Different kind of space junk. Hey-o!

        For the record I liked that movie, once I accepted that it was basically the Star Wars movie we should have had, in the trappings of a Star Trek movie.

        • I just accepted that it was a summer action flick with a Star Trek backstory. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Re:Send up a crew (Score:5, Informative)

      by Blakey Rat (99501) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:55PM (#36088498)

      Isn't that pretty much the premise of Quark? [wikipedia.org]

    • I was thinking we could send up a satellite with a giant gun thingy, and then give it internet connectivity and hook it up to a flash game. We could call it "asteroids" and get internet users to fix the problem.

  • Won't a large percentage of the junk re-enter the earth's orbit on its own given enough time?
    • by mangu (126918) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:30PM (#36088202)

      Won't a large percentage of the junk re-enter the earth's orbit on its own given enough time?

      Sure, for big enough values of "enough time". Which could be millions of years.

      Although for some orbits not even that. In geostationary orbit I don't think the satellite will reenter earth's atmosphere before the sun goes red giant.

      • by Chris Mattern (191822) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:03PM (#36088592)

        There's not as much of a space junk problem at geostationary because there's more room up that far (the amount of room available at a given altitude, after all, increases with the square of that altitude) and we don't launch as much stuff up that far. The real problem is in Low Earth Orbit, because it's so easy to reach and there's so much less space there. Just about anything in LEO will de-orbit eventually, but it may be centuries.

        • by mangu (126918)

          the amount of room available at a given altitude, after all, increases with the square of that altitude

          The geostationary orbit has zero thickness and, therefore, zero volume. Any debris there is a very serious problem.

          A small deviation from geostationary altitude will cause the debris to drift east or west and, because the orbit will never be exactly circular, it will cross the geostationary altitude at least two times a day.

      • by notnAP (846325)

        Although for some orbits not even that. In geostationary orbit I don't think the satellite will reenter earth's atmosphere before the sun goes red giant.

        ... and the answer reveals itself...

    • Yes, but "enough time" for a lot of it is centuries or more. Meanwhile, we're creating more at a vastly greater rate than what's de-orbiting.

    • by RobertLTux (260313) <robert&laurencemartin,org> on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:03PM (#36088594)

      and as this is in fact rocket science the problem is we have 3 different "speed bands" we are working with

      1 the junk that is going slow enough to fall out of orbit
      (in a more or less short period of time)

      2 the stuff that is mid range speed (could take like "forever" to fall out unless somebody/something whacks it in the right direction)

      3 the high speed stuff (this is very rare and is the stuff that heading out into deepish space)

      the problem with 1 and 2 (mostly 2) is hitting this stuff CORRECTLY is very hard to do (ideal situation is it burns up on reentry with "does not hit anything important" as a push bet)

      the worst case is you hit somebodies in service satellite or have a chunk of something wipe out a State building or something else and cause an international incident

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Ol Olsoc (1175323)
        Our first war in space will be our last war in space. A while back when the Chinese tested a satellite killer, everyone went bat-shit crazy because it made a whole lot of space junk. Now imagine if everyone were seriously making a lot of space junk by taking out each others satellites. What a mess. It will take a long time before much of anything will be launched after that. The best case scenario after that will be sweeping operations that start at low orbits and work their way up.
      • The lower the orbit the faster the orbital speed.

        It's counter-intuitive, but to catch up with something ahead of you but in the same orbit as you, you need to fire your retrorockets. You will then fall into a lower orbit, exchanging gravitational potential energy for kinetic energy and end up going faster.

        Tim.

    • We'll warm up the atmosphere so much that the expansion from the heat will thicken it enough to quickly bring down everything in Low Earth Orbit.

      • by barakn (641218)
        Bad news on that front. Global warming is causing the atmosphere to collapse.
  • by decipher_saint (72686) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:18PM (#36088108) Homepage

    We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas...

    Seriously, next batch of research missions should be various cleaning devices to see what they can do and how well they do it.

    • by mangu (126918)

      next batch of research missions should be various cleaning devices to see what they can do and how well they do it

      "Barring the discovery of a disruptive technology within the next decade or so, there will be no practical removal solution," Kaplan added. "We simply lack the technology to economically clean up space."

      Problem is, "space" didn't get that name by accident. It's big. And the debris are millions of pieces. A big laser, you say? The Soviet Union went broke trying to develop one. Perhaps a big sheet made of monocrystalline unobtainium would do the trick.

      In the end, we may be able to catch a few pieces of junk

      • Re:RTFA (Score:5, Informative)

        by Capt.DrumkenBum (1173011) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @07:25PM (#36088772)
        The definitive word on Space, is of course, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
        "Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space, listen..."
      • by AmiMoJo (196126)

        Lasers might not be a bad idea actually. Place a satellite in high orbit and have it use a laser to push debris down into the atmosphere where it can burn up. Aim it so that if you miss the beam goes off into space rather than towards the ground. In space you have unlimited free energy from the sun.

        The only issue I can see is the ban on weapons in space, but given the right power laser and joint control by the UN it should be possible. Anything that gathers debris in space could just as easily be used as a

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          In space you have unlimited free energy from the sun.

          It's not unlimited, and it's not free. The intensity of sunlight at any particular position in the solar system is more or less constant but finite. So you can increase the power available to you by increasing the area of your collector, until you have a Dyson Sphere. BUT, the weight you have to put into orbit (more precisely, "into this particular orbit") will increase more-or-less linearly with the area of the collector. And putting weight into orbit is

  • Space sharks with lasers. Duh.

    On a serious note, if I was Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic, I'd start looking at clean-up contracts. While ground-based lasers may lose too much energy trying to make it out of the atmosphere, an airborne system might have a bit more punch....

    • by tsotha (720379)
      What would be the point of using lasers? You're not going to affect the orbit of a piece of space junk just by shining a laser on it.
      • by AK Marc (707885)
        You can push it into a higher orbit with a laser (not very efficient) or vaporize it such that the material left can't hurt anything (more efficient, but still inefficient).
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        What would be the point of using lasers? You're not going to affect the orbit of a piece of space junk just by shining a laser on it.

        UH WHAT [upi.com]. We discussed this here but slashdot search is like fucking a blackberry bush

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          UH WHAT. We discussed this here but slashdot search is like fucking a blackberry bush

          I really do not want to know how you know what fucking a blackberry bush is like.

          OK, I do. If it's a youtube video or something.

          I'll just go and prepare some red-hot teaspoons, I fear I may need to scoop my eyeballs out.

  • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@[ ]u.org ['bea' in gap]> on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:21PM (#36088138)

    This isn't panic time. Low Earth orbit really shouldn't be much of a problem. Without constant effort stuff tends to come down and the smaller the faster. The higher orbits are high volume areas. That only leaves the middle to really worry about, right?

    Yea a lose bolt can really ruin your day (or satellite) right now but we are going to have to develop some defenses. Otherwise micrometeors will eventually score a hit. Again, take it in threes. Come up with some sort of armor for microscopic stuff to embed into, some sort of active (laser?) defense for medium and dodge anything big enough to see in time to light an engine.

    But while Science! used to be optimistic and forward looking these days it is timid and obsessed with Doom! and what might go wrong.

    • by mangu (126918) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:34PM (#36088242)

      The higher orbits are high volume areas

      Not quite. The geostationary orbit, one of the most valuable commercially, is infinitesimally thin. Any debris that goes by there requires maneuvers from the operating satellites, which burn fuel and take a toll on the useful life of the satellite.

    • IIRC there are treaties that prevent the weaponization of space. A "navigational" laser capable of vaporizing "medium" sized objects might fall under some kind of prohibited dual use technology. If dual use technology is allowed then I expect many nations will be researching "navigational" lasers.
    • by schnell (163007) <me&schnell,net> on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:49PM (#36088412) Homepage

      Without constant effort stuff tends to come down and the smaller the faster.

      Not necessarily true. It's all dependent on the atmospheric drag that the object generates and what orbit it was launched into (on purpose or accidentally) to begin with. Some LEO junk will at this rate stay up for millions of years.

      Come up with some sort of armor for microscopic stuff to embed into

      Unfortunately the problem there is that armor inevitably adds weight, and every pound is precious in the design of a satellite. Until we have some orbital launching mechanism more efficient than our current chemical-based rockets, it will always be an inefficient tradeoff to take on the extra weight of armoring a satellite versus the likelihood of there being an impact that the armor would mitigate.

      • Nothing in LEO will last in orbit for millions of years. You need to be more than a few 1000 km up to get that kind of orbital lifetime (aka not LEO).
  • I found a large piece of paper on the ground, so I picked it up. I shredded it and scattered it back on the ground. Isn't it still trash?
    • by bronney (638318)

      NO! It becomes art!! :)

  • Oblig quote: - remember that "Space is Big, Mind-blowingly big. I mean, you may think it's a long way down to the chemist but that's peanuts compared to Space"

    And also we haven't been dropping crap up there for too many years, from too many spacecraft. We're sort of like Columbus and his boys worrying about a toffee wrapper that someone left behind on the beach somewhere in the Caribbean.

    Can we get back to this in, say, two centuries when there's enough crap to worry about? We have other issues mor

    • Yes, space is really big - but we've already had collisions [space.com]. It's a little like the turn-of-the-century automobile crash in Kansas City - which only had two cars registered therein.

      Then there's the Kessler Syndrome, in which case a single collision's fragment could cause additional collisions, and on and on in a chain reaction that leaves us unable to pass a belt of grinding metal bits.

      OK, that may be a bit hyperbolic, but still. It's not too early to start thinking about this.

      My personal suggestion is a

      • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

        My personal suggestion is a solar-powered moon-based laser that hits anything that comes between it and earth.

        What could possibly go wrong?

    • Columbus didn't have to worry if that toffee wrapper would sink his ship. Shuttles have to worry about paint chips dinging the craft, because one nick on the glass can mean death on re-entry.
    • by perpenso (1613749) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:59PM (#36088536)

      ... we haven't been dropping crap up there for too many years, from too many spacecraft. We're sort of like Columbus and his boys worrying about a toffee wrapper that someone left behind on the beach somewhere in the Caribbean.

      Wrong analogy. To continue with the Columbus theme a better analogy would be dropping off a bunch of pigs at each island you visit. When you return later you find far more than the few pigs you dropped off. Like pigs, satellite debris "breeds". 1 item of debris + 1 item of debris = *many* items of debris, where many can be many orders of magnitude larger than two.

      Consider the example from the article. The number of debris items increased by 25% from a *single* event, China testing an anti-satellite weapon. While this may be a worse case event, an accidental collision between two satellites could similarly generate a cloud of thousands of debris items.

      Can we get back to this in, say, two centuries when there's enough crap to worry about? We have other issues more pressing that this (oh sorry - forgot this was slashdot....thought I was in a US Government thinktank...).

      A think tank would hopefully possess enough potential to realize that when TVs go blank, phones no longer make connections, ships/planes/cars can no longer navigate, etc then the average person might care.

      • Let me see if I get this right... If we just keep leaving debris in orbit........... Free Bacon!!!!!!
        • by sincewhen (640526)

          Correct, but you missed a subtle point - Free Bacon on selected Caribbean islands.
          Now do you understand the problem?

    • by lennier (44736)

      Oblig quote: - remember that "Space is Big, Mind-blowingly big.

      Interstellar space is big.

      Earth-orbital space is depressingly small, because there are only so many useful orbits.

  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:32PM (#36088224)

    U.S. General William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, underscored the worrisome issue of orbital debris during a presentation at the National Space Symposium on April 12, 2011. In a recent conference here, Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, relayed his worries about rising amounts of human-made space junk.

    Two generals with the same name and the same job, expressing concerns on the same topic!

    • But one of them _underscored_ their worries, while the other _relayed_ them. Clearly two very different personalities despite their other similarities.

    • This is what happens when parallel universes collide.

      • Indeed, the clean-shaven Shelton is the one who has worries about the debris, and the Shelton that has a goatee is the one who prefers to underscore the debris.

    • by PPH (736903)

      Two generals with the same name and the same job, expressing concerns on the same topic!

      Personally, I welcome our army of clone warrior overlords.

  • Problem solved.

  • Cleaning military bases that are de-comissioned is usually a very expensive task : the military doesn't take care of their own environments.

    Did they do better in space?

    • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

      About 25% of it is from a Chinese ICBM being crashed into a satellite, the rest is a mix of commercial, military, government collisions, wrecks, decay and accidents.

  • Yet another problem that can be solved by suitable applications of high explosives.

    • So we all just need to learn to stop worrying and love The Bomb.

      • by chill (34294)

        Fortunately, thanks to the scientific miracle of Viagra, we no longer have to worry about water fluoridation and the sapping of our precious bodily fluids!

        I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.

  • by Torodung (31985) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:45PM (#36088354) Journal

    He's just trying to clear a nice approach eliptical for the mothership to come down and enslave mankind. Don't listen to a word of it. Space junk makes intraorbital navigation hazardous, and that hazard is our best unnatural defense against the alien overlords.

    --
    Toro

    Which I for one do not welcome!

  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Tuesday May 10, 2011 @06:46PM (#36088374)

    It was an 80s-ish RPG. One of the background stories was that Word War 3 broke out and because of all the space weapons and counter-weapons blasting each other to bits and throwing up buckshot at each other, Earth's orbit becomes full of so much shrapnel that it's impossible to achieve orbit. When the Chinese tested that laser on a satellite target, that's what I immediately thought of. Space weapons are a stupid, expensive, potentially disastrous idea. Look at how bad space junk is getting and we haven even *tried* to fill orbits with crap.

    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      It was an 80s-ish RPG. One of the background stories was that Word War 3 broke out and because of all the space weapons and counter-weapons blasting each other to bits and throwing up buckshot at each other, Earth's orbit becomes full of so much shrapnel that it's impossible to achieve orbit.

      I did play Rifts. That bit about orbit was a nice touch, but also clearly a game-balance thing to keep players of sufficient resources from dealing with that whole alien-insect infestation in Minnesota or the Spluggorths (sp?) in Atlantis by going up into orbit and dropping rocks on them.

      But nevertheless, yes, it does bring to mind the dangers of letting space junk get out of hand.

    • It was an 80s-ish RPG. One of the background stories was that Word War 3 broke out and because of all the space weapons and counter-weapons blasting each other to bits and throwing up buckshot at each other, Earth's orbit becomes full of so much shrapnel that it's impossible to achieve orbit. When the Chinese tested that laser on a satellite target, that's what I immediately thought of. Space weapons are a stupid, expensive, potentially disastrous idea. Look at how bad space junk is getting and we haven even *tried* to fill orbits with crap.

      Just to clarify: Space weapons are a bad idea because weapons in general are a bad idea. If it weren't for the mentality of some humans' that cause some of us to refuse to cooperate and instead drives the desire to destroy others, the weapon problem would not exist.

      Tools, on the other hand, can also be dangerous, and extreme caution should be used when using dangerous tools...

  • Can't we just borrow that?
    On a more serious side, I read an admittedly far fetched idea of putting a 'fishing nets' in the orbits of the smaller bits of debris. Yes, tons of problems with it, but it would be nice if we could 'sweep' up a bunch of the smaller stuff. I forget the details, but from what I remember (that's a chancy proposition in itself) it seemed to be plausible.
    I admit, I am way out of my league here, so feel free to ignore as hard as possible.

  • Space sharks. With lasers.

  • I'm pretty sure this can be solved by Superman. He can just go around the earth a few times to speed up the rotation, and thus, gravity, sucking in all the shit up there back into our atmosphere so we can start from scratch.

    Right?

  • I read recently that the decay of garbage in LEO is actually lower than expected due to the extended sunspot minimum. It seems that sunspots have a significant effect on Earth's thermosphere, a tenuous portion of the atmosphere that extends into LEO and - although it's a millionth as thick as the atmosphere at sea level - exerts drag that eventually brings LEO satellites down. Perhaps the orbit of ISS does not decay as quickly as Skylab did - because there was more thermosphere in the '70's. Does this mean that there will be an increase in LEO decay once we get a strong sunspot cycle? This cycle is not so strong, and it could be several cycles before we get a really big one again.
  • Could you design a MAD system that aims to make space effectively unusable? Essentially make a collection of ICBMs with warheads full of marbles. Spray assorted orbits with enough shrapnel and you increase the danger of catastrophe for any satellite to the point where they are no longer viable tools? Not directly offensiv
    • Easily. The Chinese ASM test a few years back created a huge amount of debris (and I'm sure earlier US and Russian tests did too). You don't actually have to build something specifically for that purpose, just launch enough ASMs without much caring about where the debris ends up and Kessler's Syndrome will kick in.
  • 1. Pick a substance that can be shipped to space fairly gracefully in large, thin, flexible sheets. You'd need BIG sheets. This can either be something that is already adhesive or can be activated or coated with adhesive in orbit. Either way, it should be cheap and disposable. The edges of this material should be fairly durable so that if it tears, the torn bits will hang on to the edges. High relative-velocity impacts should either go right through the material or stick to it.

    2. Attach a small, single-use,

    • Sure, all we need is a huge amount of unobtanium.

      Unfortunately, the technological advances developed during the search for and manufacture of said unobtanium also vastly cheapens the cost of computer AI and cyborgs which leads to the rise of a global military industrial corporation named Genom.

      After the Second Great Kanto Earthquake of 2025 divides Tokyo's in two, physically as well as culturally, the vast difference of wealth distribution sparks a cultural upheaval and Genom looses its cyborgs on huma

  • However, if you step back for a second, and compare our "orbit" with our environment, we see an interesting trend.

    Even the smartest of us didn't forsee something as simple as "Hey - if you put something up there, you're going to have to deal with it."

    Unless of course you don't believe in global warming, then please take your trollisms elsewhere.
  • Create a material that is like an aerogel only that dissipates over time in a vacuum. Sticky is good too. Expands after an impact is also good for better LEO aerobraking effects if cleaning LEO paths. In upper paths make it selectively reflective (requires stable insertion and planned impacts ...) then it sails to a safe place or destruction. But simplest is just a material that will entangle, that also dissipates in a vacuum. Set a quantity of it in retrograde orbit that you want cleared. Impact with orbit
    • by RogerWilco (99615)

      I think the point of the article is that no such material exists yet, and we have no clue how to make something like that in an economic way.

      The biggest problem with most of these solutions, is getting them "up there". Moving things to space is very expensive. It's hard to get a feeling for it.
      I once compared it to the the Trust SSC, the first car to go Mach 1: 1,228 km/h (763 mph). To reach orbit you need to go about 40,000 km/h, given that the energy goes with the square of the speed, you need (40,000/1,2

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