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Humanizing Tech

"The Exponential Threat of Space Debris" in Humanizing Tech

What 200 million pieces of orbiting junk can do

I. Overview

The image you see above is a rendering of the amount of space junk that was orbiting our planet about 3 years ago. According to Wikipedia, that number included

  • 170 million pieces smaller than 1 cm
  • 670,000 debris 1–10 cm
  • 29,000 larger pieces (like satellites)

Today, these numbers have likely climbed much higher. Even though the picture appears to cover our planet and the numbers seem (excuse the ill-formed pun) astronomical, the problem is not the sheer volume of the junk. Rather, it’s the speed at which it’s traveling.

At 17,500 mph, they’re moving 250x faster than you are on a highway. At that speed, something as small as a grain of sand can blow a hole through a space craft, space station, or satellite.

What a paint chip traveling at nearly 18,000 mph can do to a satellite.

II. Where Did The Debris Come From

As most kids are, I was fascinated with space. Even though I never got the chance to go to Space Camp, I did get to visit the Air Force Academy in high school. I was going to study mechanical engineering on the path to becoming a full-fledged astronaut, but decided to study theoretical math instead. Incidentally, my first report on space debris dated back to the late 90s. We’re in a much worse position today.

Where did all of this junk and garbage floating around our beautiful green, blue, and brown planet come from? It came 100% from us. We created it.

NASA even has a Chief Scientist assigned to space debris. Officially, they say the most dangerous objects are the ones so small they can’t be tracked:

“Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. In fact a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks.”

While some folks will be quick to point out that there have only been a handful of collisions over the last few decades, as we begin traveling to space more frequently for tourism, capitalism, or exploration this problem will begin to grow exponentially.

More activity in space equals more debris, which equals more probability of collision. More collisions create more 10x more debris because big pieces get broken into lots of small pieces. The small pieces can’t be identified or tracked so more satellites and ships traveling around create more possibilities for a potentially fatal collision.

The current cost is in fuel for dodging and navigating around these bigger, more identifiable pieces. But for the Space Station, this means launching more fuel from earth to the Space Station so it can perform these manouevers. Once this results in the loss of human life, there will be more disposal legislation and responsibility on behalf of the organizations to clean up their own mess.

Imagine if Columbus not only had to sail the ocean blue, but also had to wade through and dodge man-made hazards in the ocean as he left port. Things that could sink his new, expensive ship and hurt the crew.

Space debris is real. It’s getting worse. And it’s costing us in the form of more carbon emissions (more fuel required to launch a rocket holding, what else, fuel).

III. How We Get Rid Of Debris

It’s such a big problem that an XPrize has been developed for it. You can make a difference by visiting the page and voting for this prize. As of this writing it’s nearing 1,300 votes.

There is also a compelling startup called Astroscale that is developing technology to collect information about and remove both the tiniest and the largest forms of debris. At the upper end, their ADRAS 1 microsatellite will collect and dispose of things like abandoned rocket upper stage bodies. You could see governments and rocket companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin paying for this as part of their own waste disposal services. Eventually this will become international law.

However, the bigger problem, as we’ve shown is the the tiniest and therefore, most dangerous, debris. Below is Astroscale’s answer to this problem.

If I think about another company who would be wise to disrupt themselves and innovate in disposal services, it would be Waste Management. Instead of big green garbage trucks barreling down our suburban neighborhoods, maybe they could create some big green garbage space ships to float around our interstellar neighborhoods.

Or maybe that’s the job of an entreprising entrepreneur. Be the cleanup company of our skies. And laugh all the way to the orbiting bank.

— Sean


Space as a Platform

The Exponential Threat of Space Debris was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Read the responses to this story on Medium.

from Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/29OWyHx