Beta

Slashdot: News for Nerds

×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Ugly Truth of Space Junk

CmdrTaco posted more than 3 years ago | from the hands-off-my-junk dept.

Earth 185

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."

cancel ×

185 comments

"Experts" (0, Troll)

jdigriz (676802) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088016)

What makes them experts? How much space junk have they cleaned up? Which orbital paths have they cleared?

Read the article (4, Informative)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088066)

One expert is - "orbital debris expert within the Space Department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md."

The other is - Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, who has been assigned to USAF space posts since 1976.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_L._Shelton [wikipedia.org]

Re:Read the article (1, Troll)

jdigriz (676802) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088094)

Read the question. I wasn't questioning who they were, I was questioning their expertise. In my book, people who do not have a solution for a problem can hardly be considered experts in the problem. Any idiot can say "abandon in place." It takes no special knowledge.

Re:Read the article (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088116)

Read the answer. Unless he says otherwise, the GP accepts the given facts and qualifications as expertise on the topic. What makes you so special that we have to listen to your arbitrary skepticism?

Re:Read the article (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088244)

jdigriz = jimmy digriz = sci-fi character (Stainless Steel Rat). We're dealing with a Level-II Space Nutter here. Someone who doesn't quite grasp the fact that our REAL technology is very limited. He probably feels that he was PROMISED delusional levels of technology and that any mention of limits is like a personal challenge or insult to him. He's probably not even up to par on Newtonian physics (400 years old). But he's sure "technology", whatever that is, will overcome all limits. Physics, you see, is arbitrary. There is no supporting evidence for limits in physics. Technology, on the other hand, is unbounded. It doesn't work within any kind framework. If the Easter Bunny uses a warp drive to deliver his eggs, well then, one day we'll have warp drives. Get it?

With a LOT of patience and explanations and evidence, a Level-II Space Nutter may one day become a sentient normal human. But it's a lot of work.

Re:Read the article (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088288)

But he's sure "technology", whatever that is, will overcome all limits. Physics, you see, is arbitrary.

And biology is? You're going to die of old age, QA.

Re:Read the article (3, Insightful)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088150)

Read the article, their expertise is in understanding the dynamics of the problem and the threats the problems raise.

It's like saying an oncologist can't treat cancer because he didn't make up the chemotherapy drug, thus he isn't an expert.

Re:Read the article (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088532)

So in your book, there can be no experts on an incurable disease either. No experts in global warming because it's still happening and no one has come up with a solution that will make people stop burning oil. On and so on. There's lots of problems which as of yet don't have a concrete solution. That doesn't mean there aren't experts in their perspective areas. Expert, if nothing else, means "Knows more about it than you do."

At any rate, the experts in question probably know more about space junk than some armchair idiot who's decided he's an expert on experts.

Re:"Experts" (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088096)

And what makes YOU so cocky? You watched all your Star Trek DVDs over the weekend and now you're an expert on non-existent technology and imaginary physics? The adults are working, child, go back to your crayons and Star Trek dolls.

Re:"Experts" (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088204)

The adults are working, child, go back to your crayons and Star Trek dolls.

They are action figures dammit!

Send up a crew (2)

LunaticTippy (872397) | more than 3 years ago | (#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 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088140)

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]

The words "wacky" and "PlanetES" should never be uttered in the same paragraph, except indicating that one is nothing like the other.

I can't say I've ever seen anything more depressing about the future of space travel than that.

Re:Send up a crew (1)

WhiteDragon (4556) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088520)

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]

The words "wacky" and "PlanetES" should never be uttered in the same paragraph, except indicating that one is nothing like the other.

I can't say I've ever seen anything more depressing about the future of space travel than that.

Well, then perhaps wacky in the sense that it's an anime with realistic physics, which is so unusual as to be almost an oxymoron. I mean that statement alone is enough to make most of my friends do a double take when I tell them about the series.

Re:Send up a crew (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088736)

What's with the weird capitalisation? The name is "Planetes".

Re:Send up a crew (4, Interesting)

EdZ (755139) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Send up a crew (1)

aplusjimages (939458) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088408)

What about paint chips?

Re:Send up a crew (1)

HermDog (24570) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088640)

What about paint chips?

Paint chips are lousy workers. Even worse than young people.

Re:Send up a crew (0)

hairyfeet (841228) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088966)

I always thought a variation on the old Uncle Remus "tar baby" story would clean up a lot of the small fast junk in the higher orbits most sats aren't using.

Basically you'd have Aerogel or some other thick possibly glue like substance surrounded by a one way penetrable plastic membrane. You'd leave it up there for four or five years, letting the thing get filled with more and more crap, and then once its orbit had been cleaned to general satisfaction a couple of small rockets could de-orbit it into the Pacific where it would burn up on re-entry.

But the problem with ANY solution is currently we have a "tragedy of the commons" situation where there really isn't any penalty for making a mess and trying to get the nations currently putting up birds (which more and more join into that group each year) to split the bill is nearly impossible.

So while I believe a solution CAN be found (after all the USA went from barely being able to get a rocket off the ground to the moon in 10 years) the problem is getting the peoples of Earth to pony up the $$$. Hell maybe someone can talk China into going for it as a prestige thing. We here in the USA are broke as a joke so I don't see us doing much more than hitching rides with the Russians for probably another decade, maybe two.

Re:Send up a crew (1)

dadelbunts (1727498) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088248)

I love that anime. Glad to see even in space people enjoy cigarettes. And who can get tired of "Ai Copy"

Re:Send up a crew (1)

sortius_nod (1080919) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088358)

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

Re:Send up a crew (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088438)

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.

Re:Send up a crew (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36089654)

How do you desecrate something that isn't sacred?

Re:Send up a crew (4, Informative)

Blakey Rat (99501) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088498)

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

Re:Send up a crew (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36089364)

I love that anime.

Re:Send up a crew (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36089378)

Isn't manga/anime just a transference of pedophilia from real children to child like drawings? I notice you want to send up a crew of young people to - whatever it is you want them to do. Just how young did you have in mind? Prepubescent, at least, right?

Re:Send up a crew (2)

Jessified (1150003) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089404)

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.

Build lasers and let kids operate it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088064)

I think if you build giant laser systems and let kids blast space debris and reward them in a ranking system, they will gladly do it for free and likely do it better than anyone else.

Re:Build lasers and let kids operate it (1)

Kelbear (870538) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088124)

At these speeds, I'd suprised if anyone could manage to manually hit anything at all, even by sheer luck.

Re:Build lasers and let kids operate it (3, Funny)

king neckbeard (1801738) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088236)

All that time spent playing "Asteroids" will finally pay off

Re:Build lasers and let kids operate it (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088696)

Not really. A well-designed laser system COULD hit pieces and slow them down a bit. Good luck getting kids to be able to hit a bolt or a nut that is one mile away, and moving at mach 20+

Self Correcting Problem (1)

PraiseBob (1923958) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088100)

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

Re:Self Correcting Problem (3, Informative)

mangu (126918) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Self Correcting Problem (3, Informative)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Self Correcting Problem (2)

mangu (126918) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089192)

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.

Re:Self Correcting Problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088884)

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.

Really it's just an issue of being patient. I'm sure once the sun goes Red Giant all the orbital debris will be vaporized as the sun enlarges.

Re:Self Correcting Problem (1)

Xiterion (809456) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088250)

Pretty much, for rather annoyingly long definitions of enough. The decay time can be upwards of a few hundreds of years for certain orbits.

Re:Self Correcting Problem (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088338)

Explorer 7 is still up there since 1959

Re:Self Correcting Problem (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088500)

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.

It depends on the math involved (4, Informative)

RobertLTux (260313) | more than 3 years ago | (#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

Oblig Simpsons (2)

decipher_saint (72686) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088108)

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.

RTFA (2)

mangu (126918) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088468)

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, at a cost of a few million dollars each. If only we had the several hundreds of trillions of dollars it would take to catch each of them...

Re:RTFA (4, Informative)

Capt.DrumkenBum (1173011) | more than 3 years ago | (#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..."

Re:Oblig Simpsons (1)

HermDog (24570) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088690)

I think the obvious solution for the LEO stuff is to accelerate global warming and expand the atmosphere to increase drag. Sure, it'll bring down the satellites we want to keep up there as well, but who will notice while we're slathered in SPF 10000 hunkered down in our underground bunkers learning to love eating fungi?

The solution is simple: (1)

UncleTogie (1004853) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088136)

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....

Re:The solution is simple: (1)

tsotha (720379) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088912)

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.

Re:The solution is simple: (1)

Neo Quietus (1102313) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089060)

The lasers that one typically talks about using to clean up space debris are powerful enough to outright vaporize paint flecks and other small junk. On larger bits it vaporizes a portion of the material, producing thrust and hopefully changing the orbit enough that the junk hits the atmosphere and burns up.

Re:The solution is simple: (1)

AK Marc (707885) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089128)

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).

A solvable problem (2)

jmorris42 (1458) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:A solvable problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088238)

No, Science is not obsessed with Doom, Science and Scientists are still optimistic and forward looking. Hippies, greeners, and the other pathetic genetic excrement of our society that passes for humans these days are the ones obsessed with doom, and the ones slowing down Scientific progress for the rest of the people.

Re:A solvable problem (4, Informative)

mangu (126918) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Are lasers even legal? (2)

perpenso (1613749) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088268)

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.

Re:Are lasers even legal? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088970)

lol must be nice there in fantasy land.

Re:Are lasers even legal? (1)

Repossessed (1117929) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088990)

Since when does the US give a shit about international law?

Re:Are lasers even legal? (3, Informative)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089238)

The US owns nearly half of the total orbiting satellites.

http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/space_weapons/technical_issues/ucs-satellite-database.html [ucsusa.org]

Total - 957
US - 436 - 10 Civil, 193 Commercial, 118 Government, 115 Military
Russia - 100
China - 69

49% of those are in LEO

Re:Are lasers even legal? (1)

jmorris42 (1458) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089026)

> A "navigational" laser capable of vaporizing "medium" sized objects might fall under some kind of prohibited dual use technology.

Probably not. Remember the scale of the problem here. Small is paint flecks and such, large is a small washer so medium is between those ranges. Sure the usual suspects at the Parliament of Tyrants (UN) might bang their spoons on their high chairs but we can ignore that.

Re:A solvable problem (3, Insightful)

schnell (163007) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088412)

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.

Re:A solvable problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088914)

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.

Peak oil production might make this a moot point. We get 50 more years to explore outside the atmosphere, and then it becomes too costly to go into orbit.

Ultimate solution--NERF! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088156)

Have NERF create huge capsules that when released into space expand into 2 mile wide, bio-degradable, sticky NERF balls. Launch fifty of them into a slowly degrading orbit that clears a hundred mile ring of space until they burn up in the atmosphere along with the junk.

Or maybe a geosynchronous, miles long and wide foam mat that takes away some kinetic energy every time something passes through it so that they fall to earth on their own.

Or just go for the worlds largest NERF sponge ball in space and move it around to get the worst stuff. Space might be big but a ten mile wide NERF ball would certainly slow a lot of that debris down! Even better, paint it to look like the Death Star!

Re:Ultimate solution--NERF! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36089612)

Additional thought: Missiles or craft that have giant, expandable foam fronts that are nearly a mile wide with the main craft and maneuvering engine behind? Have it plow right into a bad spot and cause all the junk to be stuck in the foam or fall out of orbit. Once done, eject the foam and let it drop or chuck it into a calculated orbit that would take out more before dropping.

The question is: how big a foam ball can we create in space?

Simple (short-term non-final) solution (which does (0)

aliquis (678370) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088184)

... n't really solve anything.)

Don't shoot anything up until you know how to get it away from there.

um.... (1)

metalmaster (1005171) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088216)

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?

Re:um.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088630)

Yes. But would you prefer me to hit you in the face with a rolled up newspaper or throw the shredded bits at you?

Too early to worry about this, surely (1)

Kittenman (971447) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088222)

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 more pressing that this (oh sorry - forgot this was slashdot....thought I was in a US Government thinktank...).

Re:Too early to worry about this, surely (1)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088334)

Space is big, Low Earth Orbit isn't.

This is like Columbus trying to make it out of port with wrecks littering the harbor mouth.

Re:Too early to worry about this, surely (2)

GuruBuckaroo (833982) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088394)

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 solar-powered moon-based laser that hits anything that comes between it and earth. Small things it might vaporize, larger things will be nudged by reaction to expanding gas into a lower orbit, eventually to fall to Earth.

Re:Too early to worry about this, surely (2)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088718)

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

What could possibly go wrong?

Re:Too early to worry about this, surely (1)

reasterling (1942300) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088782)

anything that comes between it and earth

Might I suggest that the laser not be allowed to fire toward the earth. Or at least come up with the proper warning label. Perhaps something like this:

WARNING
Light from moon may cause permanent damage to your eyes. Stare at your own risk.

Re:Too early to worry about this, surely (1)

aplusjimages (939458) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088526)

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.

Its a geometric, not a linear, problem ... (3, Informative)

perpenso (1613749) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Its a geometric, not a linear, problem ... (2)

Capt.DrumkenBum (1173011) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088830)

Let me see if I get this right... If we just keep leaving debris in orbit........... Free Bacon!!!!!!

Wow. (2)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 3 years ago | (#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!

Re:Wow. (1)

MasterPatricko (1414887) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088418)

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

Re:Wow. (1)

MaskedSlacker (911878) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088462)

This is what happens when parallel universes collide.

Re:Wow. (2)

PPH (736903) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089108)

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.

Giant Acme Magnets (1)

Atroxodisse (307053) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088226)

Problem solved.

What proportion of the space junk is military? (2)

rlglende (70123) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088252)

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?

Re:What proportion of the space junk is military? (2)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088348)

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.

Space Laser (1)

Hidyman (225308) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088296)

Couldn't they just use a laser on a satellite to push all the debris into the atmosphere?
I don't imagine it would have to be a very powerful laser to do that for small debris.

Re:Space Laser (2)

Torodung (31985) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088378)

No. Sharks can't survive long enough in the vacuum of space, and would freeze to death in the ionosphere. Think man! THINK!

Nuke it in orbit! (1)

chill (34294) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088302)

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

Re:Nuke it in orbit! (1)

ogl_codemonkey (706920) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089484)

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

Re:Nuke it in orbit! (1)

chill (34294) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089558)

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.

He's working for THEM (5, Insightful)

Torodung (31985) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088354)

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!

Did anyone play the RPG Rifts? (2)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Did anyone play the RPG Rifts? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088492)

Yes; we have tried to fill orbits with crap. That's the problem.

Go out to a field and look up at the sky. In 5-10 minutes around here you'll see at least one satellite pass by.

Re:Did anyone play the RPG Rifts? (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088514)

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.

easily solvable by putting bounties on the junk (1)

GreyFish (156639) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088480)

You'd need to weight the bounties by the risk the junk presents, it's orbit and velocity and mass.

Re:easily solvable by putting bounties on the junk (1)

retroworks (652802) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088738)

Or put $5M deposits on each piece of space junk sent into orbit. Then homeless aliens would collect them in intergalactic shopping carts and return them to the NASA redemption center.

Re:easily solvable by putting bounties on the junk (1)

tsotha (720379) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088932)

The problem is, as the article points out, the gap between the conceivable funding for bounties and the cost of removing the junk is quite large.

Spaceball Vacuum (1)

bryan1945 (301828) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088518)

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.

Re:Spaceball Vacuum (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36089160)

Yeah! Use a really really BIG magnet!

Ooh, a general worried about pollution? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088612)

Which happens to be the commander of a Space Control Agency?

How subtle!

There is only one solution. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088692)

NUKE IT FROM ORBIT!!

Is this a real problem? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36088734)

I have been hearing about the space junk problem for maybe 20 years, but has anything significant actually ever been hit/destroyed?

Re:Is this a real problem? (4, Informative)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089296)

Express-AM11 was knocked out by space debris, Kosmos 2251 and Iridium 33 collided destroying both.

Challenger STS-7, Endeavor STS-59, Atlantis STS-115 and Endeavor STS-118 were all hit in widows or radiators while all the shuttles, ISS and MIR were regularly hit with smaller debris.

ISS has over 100 Whipple Shields installed to reduce the impacts of small objects.

The answer is always sharks. (1)

macraig (621737) | more than 3 years ago | (#36088812)

Space sharks. With lasers.

Superman (1)

iONiUM (530420) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089406)

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?

Sunspots - warning: real science discussion :-) (2)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089470)

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.

Size matters! (1)

psychogre (1475893) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089538)

Space junk comes in so many sizes. Satellites and space stations have shielding to protect themselves from the smallest junk pieces. They can also make slight shifts in their orbits in order to avoid collisions with the pieces of junk that can be tracked, down to about 4 inches.
But the junk between about 0.5 -4 inches is too small to be tracked, and cannot be effectively shielded against. They have to rely on luck...
Junk in low earth orbit is also more likely to be traveling in all sorts of different orbits (inclination, eccentricity and precession rates), so a satellite could be hit by junk pieces coming from several different directions at once!

Denial-of-Space Weapons? (1)

Fractal Dice (696349) | more than 3 years ago | (#36089638)

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
Load More Comments
Slashdot Account

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?

Don't worry, we never post anything without your permission.

Submission Text Formatting Tips

We support a small subset of HTML, namely these tags:

  • b
  • i
  • p
  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>
Create a Slashdot Account

Loading...