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Report Warns of Space Junk Reaching a Tipping Point

Soulskill posted about 3 years ago | from the bad-news-for-the-shuttle-oh-wait dept.

China 105

intellitech sends this excerpt from a Reuters report: "The amount of debris orbiting the Earth has reached a tipping point for collisions, which would in turn generate more of the debris that threatens astronauts and satellites, according to a U.S. study released on Thursday (PDF). ... The amount of orbital debris tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network jumped from 9,949 cataloged objects in December 2006 to 16,094 in July 2011, with nearly 20 percent of the objects stemming from the destruction of the Chinese FENGYUN 1-C satellite, the National Research Council said. ... the panel made two dozen recommendations for NASA to mitigate and improve the orbital debris environment, including collaborating with the State Department to develop the legal and regulatory framework for removing junk from space. The study, 'Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs,' was sponsored by NASA."

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Hope I'm not too old... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37291886)

When it's time to play Planetes for real.

Re:Hope I'm not too old... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37291936)

you're an old fart. i bet you remember when "nigger" was an acceptable word to say in public without a bunch of liberal bedwetters crying about it.

Re:Hope I'm not too old... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292484)

Rather be an old fart than a stale cracker.

Re:Hope I'm not too old... (1)

inflamed (1156277) | about 3 years ago | (#37291942)

The funny thing is, Planetes wasn't really about collecting space junk.

Re:Hope I'm not too old... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294778)

Getting rid of large space junk is good and all, but unfortunately the most dangerous pieces of debris are also some of the smallest ones.

Just set off a few nuclear bombs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37291908)

That'll work, right? Or maybe set up a death star and fire a turbo laser.

EDDE (3, Interesting)

anti11es (167289) | about 3 years ago | (#37291938)

It looks like they've worked out a possible solution to clearing out debris in LEO [space.com] .

A small fleet of net-flinging spacecraft could clear every big piece of space junk out of low-Earth orbit within a dozen years, according to a researcher working on the concept. Each spacecraft, known as an ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE), would capture orbital debris in a net, then drag the junk down out of harm's way. The EDDEs would draw their power from the sun and from Earth's magnetic field rather than rely on costly chemical propellants, helping keep costs down, said Jerome Pearson, president of Star Technology and Research, Inc.

Re:EDDE (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | about 3 years ago | (#37291996)

What magic material will they make this net out of?

Re:EDDE (1)

Rogerborg (306625) | about 3 years ago | (#37292120)

Vacuum Extruded Snake Oil. Get in quick before the smart money pushes the share price up!

Re:EDDE (3, Informative)

anti11es (167289) | about 3 years ago | (#37292126)

What magic material will they make this net out of?

This PDF [aiaa.org] slide deck has some additional details. It describes them as "50-g mesh nets", I couldn't tell you how they are supposed to work.

Re:EDDE (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 3 years ago | (#37292154)

Doesn't metter. AS long as the net is moving at the same speed as the debris it's trying to capture.

Re:EDDE (2)

h4rr4r (612664) | about 3 years ago | (#37292184)

Which means you need tons of fuel or way to generate power. So either hellishly expensive to build or hellishly expensive to fuel and launch.

Re:EDDE (1)

John Hasler (414242) | about 3 years ago | (#37297854)

Which means you need tons of fuel or way to generate power.

No, just a way to generate thrust. Which they have. No fuel involved.

So either hellishly expensive to build or hellishly expensive to fuel and launch.

Or slow. Which it is.

Re:EDDE (3, Funny)

petermgreen (876956) | about 3 years ago | (#37292324)

AS long as the net is moving at the same velocity as the debris it's trying to capture.

Fixed that for you ;)

Re:EDDE (1)

geminidomino (614729) | about 3 years ago | (#37293968)

Wouldn't that be pretty worthless, turning these magic net ships into just another piece of space junk that never manages to catch (or catch up with) the crap it's supposed to be picking up?

Re:EDDE (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37295296)

Time to create a giant magnet XD

Re:EDDE (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292198)

Sure, a 'net' could easily 'catch' pieces of sharp-edged junk that come with a speed of 10,000 miles per hour.
Id' like to see such a 'net'.

Re:EDDE (1)

brim4brim (2343300) | about 3 years ago | (#37292876)

Substitute net for box and you have a much less likelihood of objects not being captured by being too small and you have a better choice of strong materials. Only problem then is velocity. Realistically though, this potential problem will only be tackled once its potential is realised (i.e accident costing millions or someone dies).

Why Bother (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37291978)

If we don't care about global warming, why bother to care about space debris? Ok, perhaps this is just an opportunity to trash-talk China.

Re:Why Bother (1)

Cruorin (1453909) | about 3 years ago | (#37292042)

With enough space debris, we can deflect the sun's rays, which will end global warming.

Re:Why Bother (1)

Doubting Sapien (2448658) | about 3 years ago | (#37292142)

The way I see it, one problem is the solution to the other problem. Allow climate change to occur without interference. The heated atmosphere expands in volume, reaching higher in altitude providing increased drag resistance to all that space junk. As more and more space debris burn up in the atmosphere, they remain aloft, blocking out sunlight and begin a "nuclear winter"-like scenario that brings temperature back to normal. Problems solved! In all seriousness, economic investments are at stake here for developed/developing nations that depend on space-based tools. communication satellites, weather monitoring, GPS/navigation, etc. I think it is feasible for not just NASA to accept responsibility, but bring forth an international agreement to solve the problem jointly in the interest of all who have a current (and perhaps future) stake in the matter.

Re:Why Bother (1)

igreaterthanu (1942456) | about 3 years ago | (#37295286)

Space debris could take out the TV relaying satellites which would be my problem, whereas global warming is my future grandchildren's generation's problem.

Why should I care about someone else's problem?

Nobody will take it seriously (1)

Lead Butthead (321013) | about 3 years ago | (#37291988)

until somebody die from it. sorry, but it's been that way for centuries.

Re:Nobody will take it seriously (3, Insightful)

Fjandr (66656) | about 3 years ago | (#37292194)

They'll start taking it seriously when multi-million dollar satellites start being obliterated.

In the US, money is a far more serious matter than human life.

Re:Nobody will take it seriously (1)

YA_Python_dev (885173) | about 3 years ago | (#37296282)

Unless it's the lives of astronauts, then everybody starts thinking that spending a billion dollars to save one life is a good deal. And maybe it actually is given the economical repercussions for the whole country of NASA astronauts being killed, but it's a bit sad considering that a $1 vaccine can save a kid in Africa (just to be clear I definitely don't advocate cutting NASA budget, quite the opposite).

Re:Nobody will take it seriously (1)

Fjandr (66656) | about 3 years ago | (#37296766)

Very true. Dead public employees killed in a risky profession are always touted as heroes, even though they chose to be in that position.

Re:Nobody will take it seriously (4, Insightful)

Brobock (226116) | about 3 years ago | (#37292746)

until somebody die from it. sorry, but it's been that way for centuries.

Nobody will take it seriously until an entertainment satellite gets taken out.

I find it funny... (1)

AngryDeuce (2205124) | about 3 years ago | (#37291992)

That we literally shit up every single place we go. Do we have a genetic predisposition to fuck things up, or is it just 200,000 years of learned behavior?

Re:I find it funny... (2)

geekoid (135745) | about 3 years ago | (#37292166)

That's true with every living thing.

Re:I find it funny... (1)

mark-t (151149) | about 3 years ago | (#37292332)

Really?

Whales have been around a heckuva lot longer than we have and don't seem to have messed things up things at all.

You may want to consider qualifying your proposition to more specific cases.

Re:I find it funny... (2)

Belial6 (794905) | about 3 years ago | (#37292634)

I don't study whales professionally, but I would wager that whales shit where they eat. It is only their low numbers that make them look like they are not fouling their living space.

Re:I find it funny... (1)

mark-t (151149) | about 3 years ago | (#37292734)

Considering we are talking about space junk, I believe that the GP was referring to metaphorical, not literal shit.

And besides, literal shit isn't even all that problematic... heck, it makes wonderful plant food, and the plants, in turn, can feed other creatures... so if you are going to only talk about literal shit, the system could actually stay fairly balanced.

Show me another creature that spoils their environment with excessive production of things that are *NOT* biodegradable, and just end up wasting space forever.

Re:I find it funny... (5, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 3 years ago | (#37293346)

Does the veritable holocaust that occurred when the first green plants started their uncontrolled emissions of powerful oxidizing agents into the atmosphere, annihilating the previously anaerobic biosphere count?

Humans probably win on points because of the sheer creativity of their pollution, and the fact that they do it despite having brains large enough to predict that they will suffer for it; but they aren't exactly the first organism to synthesize something that didn't (yet) have anything evolved to break it down.

Re:I find it funny... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37293930)

Zebra muscles introduced into the great lakes.

Re:I find it funny... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294712)

Shit is a big problem. Life in pre-revolutionary Paris was pretty disgusting (as were most big cities). People threw shit out their windows onto the street.

Faecal-oral pathogens are a big problem at the moment in developing countries.

All animals, if confined to a small enough space, will destroy and shit it up. Have you never had pet mice?

Re:I find it funny... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37295020)

Genetic predisposition.

Before technology and overpopulation we produced waste that the rest of nature would take care of, just like every living thing produces waste that other living things live on. Waste in itself is not a problem, and we aren't wired to treat it as a problem. The problem is that in evolutionary terms we learned how to produce waste that isn't part of natural cleanup cycles at an amazing speed and in amazing quantities, while we're only starting to learn that we need to clean it up ourselves when our environment doesn't do it for us.

Re:I find it funny... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37296130)

That is what Smith said to Morpheus. We are like a virus, we consume everything in an area and then move on, leaving a wasteland behind.

Just wait till we get to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Humans, if we can't fuck it, we will fuck it up!

Wait - China is polluting something? (1)

Gothmolly (148874) | about 3 years ago | (#37292018)

Leave it to China. What's next, more lead-flavored freeze dlied ice cleam for the ISS crew?

Bill the Chinese (1)

Lead Butthead (321013) | about 3 years ago | (#37292246)

We can starting cleaning up the orbit, and bill them by deducting the cost plus a... modest profit off the US debt they're holding...

Re:Wait - China is polluting something? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292944)

Well, you have to admit, lead is the best tasting flavor of freeze dlied ice cleam.

Oh, did you mean "red"?

Re:Wait - China is polluting something? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294968)

Are you suggesting that the chief polluter in orbital space is China?

Kessler Syndrome (5, Interesting)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | about 3 years ago | (#37292024)

There's an idea dating back to the late 1970s of "Kessler Syndrome" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome [wikipedia.org] in which repeated collisions of objects in orbit will result in so many debris objects that they will become a self-reinforcing problem (since when debris collides with other bits of debris the result is a lot more smaller pieces now in different orbits from the original large pieces). The level at which things become inconvenient is well before where we hit full on Kessler syndrome, but it may well be that one won't get much warning before Kessler syndrome starts to take hold.

There's a very real danger at this point that we will soon run into a real Kessler syndrome situation in low-Earth orbit. This would be really bad since this is both a really useful area to have satellites and the area where it is cheapest to put them in orbit. We have taken a few steps to help matters. For example, it became apparent that the Delta rockets were causing a lot of space debris and the more recent versions have been redesigned to minimize those issues. Unfortunately, many rockets from other countries and some other US rockets still have serious problems. There's no indication that China is taking any serious steps to minimize space debris. There have been some attempts to require people who put up satellites to have plans for either deorbiting them or parking them in graveyard orbits. That's now being done for most civilian satellites, but we don't know what if anything is being done for military satellites. This is in some sense one massive tragedy-of-the-commons type situation.

The current engineering solutions for removing space debris are also lacking. There's a proposal to use lasers to ablate small bits of debris but this is politically not great since lasers powerful enough to do that could be used as weapons. Most of the other proposals have other problems or have the same problem: essentially any method of easily deorbiting objects is going to be a threat to satellites, and so for obvious reasons governments don't want other governments to have that sort of capability.

One point which this new study makes that I had not seen before is the point that the calculated cost of satellite collisions is underestimated because not only do satellites collisions destroy satellites but they also create more debris which can then endanger other satellites and requires further tracking.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (1)

Moof123 (1292134) | about 3 years ago | (#37292056)

It seems to me that this might be a solution. Small things de-orbit much faster. Also, after a collision all the pieces are less likely to be in a nice round orbit, and at least from a pure mass-in-space perspective it seems like a cascade would clear things out relatively quicker than trying to clean stuff up one piece of junk at a time.

Anyone have any idea what sort of time scale we are on for all the close in stuff? Years, decades, centuries?

Re:Kessler Syndrome (1)

reasterling (1942300) | about 3 years ago | (#37292346)

Small things de-orbit much faster.

I am confused by this. How does the reduction of mass effect an orbit of an object? I used to think that greater mass meant that you had to have a larger speed to maintain orbit. By that logic a smaller object would fly off into space. But, I no-longer think it is that simple.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292490)

> How does the reduction of mass effect an orbit of an object?
Splitting a large object into multiple smaller objects increases the total drag while leaving the total mass unchanged. Atmospheric drag is a significant issue in LEO.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (1)

Rhywden (1940872) | about 3 years ago | (#37292552)

I'm also not sure about the mass. I'm sure about the shape, however.
It's atmospheric drag slowing stuff down and thus deorbiting objects. Remember that we still have an atmosphere at those altitudes, however miniscule. Without that, objects would keep on orbiting for quite a long time (e.g. until the sun swallows the Earth, or something like that).

Re:Kessler Syndrome (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292702)

Actually, it's even simpler. Galileo's thought experiment applies to orbit (in a hypothetical void, anyway) just as well.

The biggest complication is atmospheric drag, which as a square/cube thing, is proportionately more significant for smaller objects of similar shape and construction. Shape, of course, is not necessarily similar for a satellite and fragments of that satellite, but in general, we can expect this to give fragments even _more_ drag than predicted, precipitating them out all the faster. (Other complications include tidal forces & electromagnetic forces, but these are generally negligible.)

Re:Kessler Syndrome (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292754)

Square-law vs. Cube law.

Small things have a higher drag to mass ratio because drag goes like L^2 while mass goes like L^3, so they will be affected more by the tenuous atmosphere that is up there than larger pieces of debris.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (1)

Korveck (1145695) | about 3 years ago | (#37293310)

I disagree that a laser that can destroy space debris is "politically not great" for its potential as weapon. Remember that space debris are very small objects, measured in cm or even mm. A laser powerful enough to destroy these small objects is hardly a powerful weapon, and there are plenty of much more powerful alternatives if harm needs be done. As a destructive force laser is horribly ineffective. With decades of research, the best use of laser in military is still intercepting missiles. I cannot see why other countries will have strong opposition to deploying laser for space debris.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (3, Insightful)

Rich0 (548339) | about 3 years ago | (#37294004)

I also disagree that lasers aren't "politically not great" for the exact OPPOSITE reasons as you. When has getting funding for a weapons system ever been a difficult political proposition? Sure, everybody else might not like the fact that you can now shoot down their satellites, but they're not going to complain too loudly about it since:

1. Some day they might want to ask you nicely to shoot down somebody else's satellites for them.
2. They don't want you to shoot down their satellites.
3. They're going to be busy working on their own fancy lasers.

This is why I chuckle every time I see one of those "Boy, the Europeans will stick it to the US with Galileo" threads. Under just about any circumstance where the US would actually deploy selective availability, the EU would be pretty likely to freely do the same thing with their own satellite network. About the only case where that wouldn't be likely to happen would be an all-out US vs EU war, which of course would never happen, and in any case would just result in a bazillion ASAT weapons turning LEO into a cloud of buckshot. While it seems that everybody loves a good US vs EU thread, the reality is that on most issues the US and EU have far more in common than they have in opposition, and most of the political theater is to keep the various fringes in the political parties happy and focused on something other than the fact that just about everybody in office everywhere is corrupt.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (1)

anubi (640541) | about 3 years ago | (#37293536)

Thanks, Joshua, for posting that. I was aware of the problem of collisions generating debris, but had no idea how to refer to it.

A concern I have had is if a small country, feeling threatened by a larger country, decides to launch a couple of tons of pea gravel into an elliptical retrograde orbit.

Such a move would make space unusable for everyone.

Consider these snippets from Applying the wisdom of Alexander the Great to Business Intelligence [expresscom...online.com] .

The solution was so brilliant that it is studied today in every naval war college on the planet. Alexander was the first general to defeat a navy on land...

How do you defeat a navy on land? Well, Alexander carefully gathered data until he completely understood his enemy ... in this case, a fleet. This analysis revealed a key weakness: the need for fresh water...Naval commanders were constrained to carry their water with them, which put an upper bound on operating distances...

Alexander's army garrisoned all sources of fresh water (e.g., rivers, wells, and lakes) or poisoned those sources they could not control or did not want to control.

In our case, its not water we need to wage war, its the dominion of space and satellites.

Re:Kessler Syndrome (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294772)

A concern I have had is if a small country, feeling threatened by a larger country, decides to launch a couple of tons of pea gravel into an elliptical retrograde orbit.

Then a larger country could decide to put boots on the ground in the smaller country and keep them there. Forever. A good, old-timey occupation replete with rape and pillage and wanton slaughter of the people who thought they'd ruin space for everyone. Make a fine example of them so no one else gets and acts on such a stupid idea again.

S-I-C (1)

NikeHerc (694644) | about 3 years ago | (#37292038)

Time to fire up the Space-Industrial-Complex! NASA, let's get our astronauts up there and clean that mess up! They can stick the debris in the ISS so that when it deorbits, it will carry down tons of space junk!

Despinning the press release... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292064)

"The amount of debris orbiting the Earth has reached a tipping point for collisions,..."

Despin: "Since the Shuttles have been decommissioned and manned-space flight is being abandoned and thus our budget in danger of being slashed, we really needed to come up with something we could call a crisis to justify our continued existence."

Re:Despinning the press release... (2)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 3 years ago | (#37292238)

Zero to space junk denialism in less than half an hour :-(

what a coincidence (1)

nimbius (983462) | about 3 years ago | (#37292096)

so that means another 20% of all space junk is from when we shot one of our satellites down [wikinews.org]
and in the 80s, we shot down another satellite [wikipedia.org] , so that must mean another 20%!
and again russia shot down a satellite [nytimes.com]
so that must mean 80% of all space junk is from rockets that blow up old satellites in order to maintain standing in some international geosynchronous pissing contest

if we keep looking through history chances are other countries have shot down satellites as well, perhaps more than once. why, If the report had been released 25 years ago you might even see the word china replaced with the word Russia.

NASA: great place for science to be done, but has an ugly habit of political rhetoric being injected into its reports.

Re:what a coincidence (1)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | about 3 years ago | (#37292146)

USA-193 was in a severely decaying orbit so its debris did not add substantially to the total space debris. Both the old Russian and US tests did not produce nearly as many pieces as the Chinese test. I think that again has to do with orbital dynamics (or just very low orbits) and other issues but I don't know enough to discuss that in detail (what a satellite is made of and how exactly it is hit could change a lot how many pieces it will fracture into). Keep in mind that individual pieces of space debris are counted and kept track of via very sophisticated radar systems. The claim that the Chinese satellite test created a lot more debris is based on the raw debris counts.

Re:what a coincidence (2)

geekoid (135745) | about 3 years ago | (#37292242)

The ones you list where in decaying orbits, and just about to reenter.

China's satellite wasn't re-entering, it was in a pretty stable orbit and as such the debris will be there for a very long time.

You are not stupid, stop acting like it.

Re:what a coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37295944)

The ones you list where in decaying orbits,

The fact that the word "where" is not the word "were" has managed to escape your notice until now?

You are not stupid, stop acting like it.

You, on the other hand, ARE stupid.

yup. obvious prejudice. (1)

decora (1710862) | about 3 years ago | (#37292302)

Pointing out specific countries that cause pollution is obvious prejudice, possibly racist.

We need to be more understanding, and just use the phrase "a country, which shall not be named, recently dumped a shitload of pollution into the environment. we cant tell you which country - that would be prejudiced"

Re:yup. obvious prejudice. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37293386)

We need to be more understanding, and just use the phrase "a country, which shall not be named, recently dumped a shitload of pollution into the environment. we cant tell you which country - that would be prejudiced"

Nope, you need to stop being racist to begin with, so when it really matters you can name specific countries without appearing to be racist. Stop making racist jokes, stop judging people and products based on their country of origin, stop having conflicts with countries because they have resources you don't. As long as you don't stop doing these, you're shooting yourself in the foot when trying to deal with real international problems.

Re:yup. obvious prejudice. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294760)

How is a fact prejudice?

Re:what a coincidence (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294526)

A source of space junk that wasn't from shooting down satellites:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_West_Ford

In short: the USA deliberately put half a billion individual pieces of junk into orbit. Well above LEO, but they're slowly deorbiting through the LEO band.

Channel Z! (1)

eyenot (102141) | about 3 years ago | (#37292140)

"Gotta tune in pico waves, gotta tune out PCBs,
gotta tune in market crash, gotta tune out polar shift,
gotta tune in narrow minds, gotta tune out space junk,
gotta tune in bombs, atomic lasers falling from the sky...
where's my umbrella?"

-- The B-52's, 'Channel Z' (Cosmic Thing)

Planetes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292152)

The plan on how to fix this is already in place http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetes [wikipedia.org] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetes

Space - not so empty. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292158)

I work for a space agency - and I can tell you that this is concerning pretty much everyone. The real problem is the most sought after orbits - the sun synchronous polar orbits that weather and environmental satellites like to use. These orbits are already congested enough (not space wise, but radio spectrum wise) and almost all national and transnational agencies are setting up monitoring projects to predict potential collisions which will totally ruin these orbits for generations.

It's a real and serious problem. If you get a collision cascade you can't launch ANYTHING safely. You're stuck. Imprisoned in your own gravity well.

Re:Space - not so empty. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292220)

I begin to wonder if some countries actually want this to happen, for ideological or religious reasons... or just the "if I can't have a toy, nobody can have it" type of thinking. It is trivial for a country to put space junk into orbit, and being able to deny use of a LEO orbit range for centuries would be a religious and military victory for some nations.

China doesn't seem to care, but they will soon -- how are they going to keep satellite infrastructure up for the geosync satellites when anything launched will get perforated by their own doing?

didn't concern the chinese that much (1)

decora (1710862) | about 3 years ago | (#37292234)

they were like 'awww awesome, we blew that shit up. did you see that? fuck, man, just like Return of the Jedi'

Waste Management (1)

confused one (671304) | about 3 years ago | (#37292188)

WM has taken a real green bend lately -- generating power from landfill gas, etc. If you could show them how to generate electricity (and money) from space junk removal, they might bite.

Kevlar coating? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292260)

Maybe the folks at Kevlar can make some sort of "bullet-proof vest" for satellites that is lightweight and able to protect satellites from micro-meteors. Hell, if it's black, maybe it could provide solar power for the satellite!

What plays in my head every time I hear.... (0)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 3 years ago | (#37292270)

SPACE JUNK [youtube.com]

What is so hard about a robot bumper bot? (1)

BlueCoder (223005) | about 3 years ago | (#37292362)

All one needs is a panel to deflect objects downward and a robot that can get around it's orbit to get the job done. Put multiple drones up in multiple orbits. And yes I understand about the big difference in speed of objects but the solution is to angle the panel to deflect less, maybe enough for the next bumper drone to deflect it again. All we need to do is make the junk deorbit sooner and it will burn up. Plus the bumper drone actually gets a nudge up and a nudge faster with each collision. So in the least if the craft is rugged and light enough it could get at least get some energy to put it in position for it's next collision.

For some rare objects (such as complete satellites) a different system of using a net would probably be needed.

I think this is a given since the alternative is more or less similar such that each satellite has a protection shield satellites in front of it and behind it. That would obviously be much more expensive.

Re:What is so hard about a robot bumper bot? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 3 years ago | (#37292528)

All one needs is a panel to deflect objects downward

These are not ping pong balls. They don't "bounce", they "pummel"

and a robot that can get around it's orbit to get the job done

Not entirely sure what you are trying to get at, but if your thinking of little robots wandering out in space waiting to capture debris, consider the fact that space is very, very large and the objects are very small. Further consider that to get from one orbit to another you need delta V and delta V is expensive.

Put multiple drones up in multiple orbits.

See above

And yes I understand about the big difference in speed of objects but the solution is to angle the panel to deflect less, maybe enough for the next bumper drone to deflect it again. All we need to do is make the junk deorbit sooner and it will burn up. Plus the bumper drone actually gets a nudge up and a nudge faster with each collision. So in the least if the craft is rugged and light enough it could get at least get some energy to put it in position for it's next collision.

No, you really don't understand. Go read up on orbits, mass and orbital mechanics.

This is a very, very hard problem to solve. It's not like the concept was brought up last week and they're offering a prize to somebody on the Internets to figure out.

Re:What is so hard about a robot bumper bot? (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 3 years ago | (#37294052)

The problem is that every little piece of debris is in a different orbit. A spacecraft can only practically maneuver within a very narrow range of orbits (particularly around inclination) since every maneuver burns fuel. When you collide with something at a different inclination the difference in velocity is huge - thousands or tens of thousands of m/s. You'd need quite a bit of material to deflect something with that kind of impact speed.

The laser ideas aren't bad ones (maybe). For small debris using aerogel might make sense - if you can somehow blow up huge balls of the stuff. Basically you'd just inflate some huge mass of gel in some orbit, and let junk blast through it for a while, with each collision slowing it down and slowly deorbiting it. A big mass of aerogel will in itself deorbit since it has a high drag relative to its mass. However, I'm not sure that even this is practical - space is big and I'm not sure how much of it percentage-wise you can sweep with a reasonable number of gels (and obviously you have to dodge useful satellites). Plus, I'm not sure how much aerogel will actually slow down something that hits it at high velocity.

Bottom line, however, is that capturing debris with low relative velocity isn't going to be practical unless you want to de-orbit intact satellites (which of course is a legitimate part of the problem). You can't launch a robot for every screw floating around in orbit.

Tipping Point (1)

Swanktastic (109747) | about 3 years ago | (#37292456)

When nothing interesting has happened for the last 50 years in {TOPIC} and you want to get more funding for {PROJECT}, the best way to do it is to trot out the term "Tipping Point."

Note to self: Use the term Tipping Point more often.

Re:Tipping Point (1)

YA_Python_dev (885173) | about 3 years ago | (#37296332)

There has been a 62% increase in the last 5 years and we are definitely approaching a point where new debris are created spontaneously even if we stop all new space launches. I don't think you realize how much our economies depend on satellites today.

Nuke it OUT of orbit (1)

bolthole (122186) | about 3 years ago | (#37292460)

It's the only way to be sure

space debris emergency (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292542)

Dear Team and readers, as a participant of Singularity University '11 at NASA Ames, I would be very happy to share with you my video about space debris :

http://twitc.com/Prx1eWiui

I hope you will like it and feel free to publish it and share it.
Jaz.

How about this? (1)

Commontwist (2452418) | about 3 years ago | (#37292932)

Create a compound mixed with air under extreme pressure that when launched into orbit and released becomes a hundred foot wide(or more), NERF-like object that can absorb massive kinetic impacts of micro-sized objects. (Carbon nanotubes?) Even better, keep it attached to the rocket so you have a mobile orbit cleaner or have the missile detach a half-dozen smaller 'cleaners' once in position. After a few calculated orbits the controllers can use the rockets to speed up the sponges into a slightly higher position and repeat. Or perhaps create world's largest geosynchronous NERF ball (300 ft?) and have it absorb every object in that orbital space. Seriously, is this workable?

Re:How about this? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294028)

Aerogel
Its been done once before with a comet. .http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/

Re:How about this? (1)

Commontwist (2452418) | about 3 years ago | (#37294128)

Or perhaps a mile radius circular sheet of tightly woven carbon nanotubes kept taut by rotation and weighted ends. (Rocket in middle like big umbrella?) Spin up in high orbit and let fly. It should hit and slow down a lot of space debris before falling to earth.

Or a several mile long, half mile wide sheet of similar stuff with maneuvering rockets at both ends.

Or an array of mirrors to reflect enough sun at enough of the worst junk to burn it up or slow it down.

Keep it up there? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37292972)

As an alternative to pushing junk back down the gravity well, why not keep it in orbit, but corral all that material into clumps that could save us all millions in future? That junk is raw material. Keep it floating around, but parked in safer orbits where the junk can be exploited for possible lesser cost than rocketing more junk into orbit later.
Orbiting junk yard, pick your part, whatever. :)

Re:Keep it up there? (1)

arcsimm (1084173) | about 3 years ago | (#37293550)

Geez, and I thought all the antifreeze on the ground at the typical U-Pull-It was hazardous. I can't wait until the self-service spaceship salvage yards give you hydrazine poisoning!

Fight fire with fire (1)

russotto (537200) | about 3 years ago | (#37293832)

Send up a rocket full of nuts and bolts and blow it up --- only send it in a retrograde orbit. New space junk hits old space junk, orbital velocities cancel, everything falls and burns up.

Oh, you wanted to keep some of the stuff up there? Sheesh, do I have to think of a solution to everything?

Re:Fight fire with fire (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 3 years ago | (#37294082)

Aside from your obvious humor, I don't think this would work. On average for every air molecule in the room I'm sitting in moving towards my left there is another air molecule moving to the right at the same speed. On average the net velocity of all the molecules in the room I'm in is zero. And yet, the air molecules in my room don't suddenly all bang into each other coming to a complete stop and then fall to the floor.

Now, if you increase the density of space junk such that it acts less like a gas and more like condensed matter, then your idea probably would work (and then we'd all have 500 tons of metal per square foot of ground dropping on us).

Re:Fight fire with fire (1)

russotto (537200) | about 3 years ago | (#37296716)

Aside from your obvious humor, I don't think this would work. On average for every air molecule in the room I'm sitting in moving towards my left there is another air molecule moving to the right at the same speed. On average the net velocity of all the molecules in the room I'm in is zero. And yet, the air molecules in my room don't suddenly all bang into each other coming to a complete stop and then fall to the floor.

They aren't in orbit. And the collisions (which happen all the time; mean free path in air is 68nm) are elastic. Collisions between space junk would be largely inelastic and/or offset, I'd expect, and slowing the junk should push it into a lower orbit where atmospheric drag will slow it further and bring it down.

Which is not to say my idea is practical, just that it's not impractical for that reason.

Re:Fight fire with fire (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 3 years ago | (#37298002)

Good point about elasticity.

However, mean free path is going to be what kills putting buckshot in retrograde orbit. Maybe once a month two pieces will collide and de-orbit. The rest of the time space is just one big void full of ball bearings whizzing past each other in near-misses.

Giant ball of silly putty (1)

llZENll (545605) | about 3 years ago | (#37293884)

to absorb all of the space junk into one big blob.

It's not a serious problem (1)

PastTense (150947) | about 3 years ago | (#37294086)

With the forthcoming economic catastrophe the world will shortly face, almost nobody will be able to afford to launch any more satellites.

Why doesn't this shit just fall down? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294738)

We had a story about ejected earth matter making it to Jupiter's moons, yet this stuff in the sky won't fall? It just doesn't make sense.

strategies (1)

tinkerton (199273) | about 3 years ago | (#37294958)

Just as a quick exercise without foreknowledge, one can imagine possible approaches

- mop up the debris
- explode the debris
- slow down the debris so it falls out of orbit
- selective approaches, safe corridors.

The approach could depend on size and material.

You shouldn't explode big pieces, it just makes the problem worse. It's like exploding approaching asteroids with bombs, it creates more projectiles. It could only work if you can explode things far enough so they become extremely small. Maybe exploding pieces makes sense for pieces that are just above some danger threshold.

One could imagine a long term 'cloudlike' situation with a lot of dust and increased drag. The cloud would also help in getting the material out of orbit.
There should be some nice models for that.

Mopping up is a challenge because it you have to avoid creating more debris while you're at it. You'll need spiderweb materials that can absorb a lot of energy.

The delicate approach would be to slow down the debris. If it slows down enough, it will fall to earth.How could you do that though, Lasers? Then the difficulty is to generate enough impulse without overheating the debris. Electromagnetically(eddy currents), with some dedicated satellites? The debris will contain a lot of metal.

It seems with each strategy you'll need to model the statistical evolution of the debris.

There, and now I can check the article to check my guesses...

Only fair. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37294992)

With China having about 20% of the world population,
it's only fair that they would have about 20% of the space-debris too.

Re:Only fair. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37297768)

So they should contribute 20% of the resources needed to clear it up, right?

Weather effects? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37295036)

Anybody ever wonder if all that junk orbiting the planet might be part of the cause behind some of our "worst weather for x hundred years" that we've had lots of recently?! Reflecting or absorbing heat from the sun. Leeching vital atmospheric particles. Or even changing precipitation levels on re-entry? Don't know much about the science of weather but just a thought...

The Sky is Falling (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37295462)

This issue has been talked about for decades, sort of like the space watch for NEOs. But no one seems to have taken it seriously -- as one poster said, just wait until an entertainment satellite gets taken out. Looking around at out planet the issue and its non-response seem typical -- we blunder into someplace, rip out what we want and leave whatever wreckage behind for someone else to deal with. Guess the Chinese will have to deal with it since they seem to be the only country that is actively moving forwards. The rest of us are slowly abandoning space as our societies crumble and we creep into our holes to die. I suspect the timing of this is to try and drum up some funding for what is left of the space program. Pity the anti-science crowd in Washington are too busy trimming the wicks of their whale-oil lamps to care.

Dust vs dust (2)

jwdb (526327) | about 3 years ago | (#37295922)

There was a presentation a few weeks ago by G. Ganguli from Naval Research Laboratory where he suggested placing a layer of very fine dust in an LEO band. The dust should be too fine to cause any impact damage but thick enough that it increases drag, decaying the orbit of debris. A satellite would be unharmed, although its orbit would also decay slightly. You can even tune the dust's own decay rate to match that of the debris size you're targeting.

Couldn't find that original paper online, but here's another: http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.1401 [arxiv.org]

Radiometer Tech - Astonishingly Modern, eh What? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37296474)

Paint the particles white the topside, and black underneath. Help by zapping them from above with SDI beams (laser, particle - charged or not, etc). Finally use it constructively. Careful not to burn what's below (which was their original intent). That robocop news clip, regarding SDI accidents might become too convenient, er, I mean, foresighted.

You could also place glue soup in their path. Electric, magnetic, photon-sensitive ... whatever. You could ask the Anunaki for mo' 'n betta' type ideas, as well. ;p

BFD (1)

slick7 (1703596) | about 3 years ago | (#37296476)

Since the US no longer has the capability to send people to the ISS, Russia can't get their rockets to fly, thereby leaving the ISS to be abandoned. The problem is self-resolving.

Aerogel mop? (1)

PPH (736903) | about 3 years ago | (#37297498)

As a few others have suggested, mopping up some of the smaller bits with a few large, gooey balls of some sort of aerogel might work. Statistically, the tipping point suggests that the likelihood of impact between a small fragment and a satellite (resulting in more bits of shrapnel adding to the debris cloud) is not very low. If there are on the order of a few thousand larger pieces up there serving as targets for the smaller bits and we can calculate the probability of impact between these, then we should be able to figure out how many (and how big) these blobs need to be. Momentum transfer between the crud picked up over time and the blob will serve to shift it around and sweep larger areas than a simple orbit would.

It might be possible to launch multiple independently orbited areogel dispensing canisters on its way up through several altitudes. Leave them up for a while (years) and let them collect junk. Then intercept them with small propulsion units that will slow them into atmospheric re-entry.

One could also launch such mops from the ISS or other high value orbiting platforms in their orbits to block head-on collisions with small bits

Need a Space Vehicle (1)

theygoto11 (2027152) | about 3 years ago | (#37298272)

We should create a new space vehicle that could go into orbit, pick up the space junk with a robotic arm, store it and shuttle it back to earth. We could call it the "Space Shuttle"
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