How Worried Should We Be About Space Junk?
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Weigh the value of launching satellites, rovers, spacecraft and other items into space for our benefit against the risks and dangers of increasing the amount of space debris. Which is more important? Should we be worried about limiting space junk?
Recently China successfully launched their first moon rover, Chang’e-3, into orbit. Unfortunately later that day pieces from the launch rocket fell off and destroyed the homes of two citizens. Although nobody was harmed, the falling spacecraft still worried many people. This incident has led Chinese citizens to demand their government provide insurance plans guaranteeing compensation for the loss of property or any deaths or injuries that may occur from other launches in the near future. In fact, due to the launch of the Long March, Chinese authorities evacuated up to 180,000 people from the provinces near other launch sites in order to ensure the safety of civilians.
Space junk or debris is categorized as any man-made object orbiting in space that no longer serves a useful purpose. This includes old satellites, rocket stages used to send the satellites into orbit, bolts and objects released during satellite deployment, and fragments from the accidental breakup of large objects. Space junk can linger in orbit for many decades at very high altitudes and continues to build up as more is produced. As more and more space junk accumulates around Earth, the likelihood that it will collide with functioning satellites increases dramatically. These collisions can take place at the speed of thousands of miles per hour, so even a collision of a tiny fragment can be disastrous and destroy a spacecraft worth billions of dollars. Every time a collision occurs, thousands of new pieces of debris can be formed. Nowadays, space junk is being produced at a faster rate than it can burn up in the atmosphere.
So why should we be concerned? The existence of space junk affects our daily lives more than we know it. Nearly a hundred tons of space junk falls from orbit every year. Most of it falls into the vast ocean or just burns off in the atmosphere. However, some of this space junk falls in populated areas and causes damage, as happened with China’s recent launch. Satellites serve many purposes and are vital to communications, military strategy and environmental monitoring. If these satellites, that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, were to get struck by a tiny piece of space debris moving at the speed seven times faster than a rifle bullet, our communications could be interrupted or evenly permanently terminated. And with the buildup of space debris, the risk of satellites being destroyed by colliding debris only increases.
PBS NewsHour video Will Space Junk Collide With Plans for Future Exploration?
Hear from Donald Kessler, former head of NASA’s orbital debris research program, about space debris. He discusses how much is out there, what it looks like, what happens when pieces of debris collide and the danger it poses for future space travel and for us.
To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNowJunk
For more info on how to use Twitter, click here.
We encourage students to reply to other people’s tweets to foster more of a conversation. Also, if students tweet their personal opinions, ask them to support their ideas with links to interesting/credible articles online (adding a nice research component) or retweet other people’s ideas that they agree/disagree/find amusing. We also value student-produced media linked to their tweets like memes or more extensive blog posts to represent their ideas. Of course, do as you can… and any contribution is most welcomed.
Space.com infographic Space Junk Explained: How Orbital Debris Threatens Future of Spaceflight
Learn about the amount and kind of space debris orbiting the Earth, what its impact is and ideas for cleaning it up.
Scientific American interactive A Minefield in Earth Orbit: How Space Debris Is Spinning Out of Control
This interactive includes an introduction to the space debris problem, six reasons to worry, graphics on how the debris spreads in orbit and charts depicting who is responsible the junk in space.
NPR article U.S. ‘Space Fence’ Radar System Goes Silent, After 50 Years
Read about the “Space Fence,” a U.S. radar system that tracks thousands of objects orbiting Earth, that was shut down in September.
NASA website Orbital Debris Program Office
The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office studies leads NASA’s space debris research, focusing on the following: modeling, measurements, protection, mitigation and reentry.
KQED Do Now Science is a monthly activity in collaboration with California Academy of Sciences. The Science Do Now is posted every second Tuesday of the month.
This post was contributed by youth from the Spotlight team within The California Academy of Sciences’ Careers in Science Intern Program. CiS is a multi-year, year-round work-based youth development program for young people from groups typically under-represented in the sciences.