UK 'space junk' project highlights threat to missions

November 18, 2016 by Ruth Holmes
A display shows approaching space debris as part of a digital art project around space debris created by British composer and sound artist Nick Ryan entitled 'Adrift' at the Royal Astronomical Society in London on November 18, 2016

The mass of "space junk" orbiting the Earth poses a serious threat to future exploration, a British scientist said on Friday at the launch of a project to raise awareness of the issue.

"Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind's greatest environmental challenges, but is also perhaps the one that is the least known," said Hugh Lewis, head of astronautics research at the University of Southampton.

He was supporting the launch of a creative project at London's Royal Astronomical Society by artists and scientists aiming to shed light on the 27,000 pieces of debris being tracked as they orbit the Earth.

There are believed to be around 100 million pieces in total, but some are too small to chart.

So-called "space junk" has been left in space during the many missions that have taken place since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in 1957.

The debris now poses a serious threat to future space exploration, scientists warn.

"Every day, we use and rely on services provided by satellites without ever realising how vulnerable they are," said Lewis.

Space debris puts these satellites at risk of being destroyed or damaged and "may affect the dreams and ambitions of future generations to work and live in space", he said.

The project, titled "Adrift", uses film, sound and social media to explore the dangers of space junk.

A documentary by filmmaker Cath Le Couteur features British-American meteorologist and astronaut Piers Sellers, who dropped his spatula during a space walk on NASA's "Discovery" mission in 2006.

The tool was left travelling at a speed of 27,000 kilometres per hour before burning up in the atmosphere.

"Space debris as an operating astronaut, it was just the enemy... It's a sleet of very fast-moving stuff," Sellers said in the film.

Speaking at the launch, Le Couteur said the documentary highlighted a "critical contemporary crisis".

"It is now a very serious threat to future space exploration, to us here on Earth, and to the damage and destruction of satellites that we rely on," she said.

Audiences can "adopt" a piece of space junk on Twitter, such as Vanguard, the second US satellite into space and the oldest existing piece of space debris.

The project also includes an attempt to follow audibly the path of space debris, using an electromechanical sound instrument to transform its movement into sound.

BAFTA-winning composer and sound artist Nick Ryan recorded 1,000 sounds using objects chosen to represent space debris—which itself is silent—and used it to represent live data from space.

Explore further: Surrey Space Centre to lead test mission to clear up space junk in 2017

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BackBurner
2 / 5 (7) Nov 18, 2016
"Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind's greatest environmental challenges"

And here all this time I've thought it was climate change? What will they think of next?
GeoKeen
2.4 / 5 (8) Nov 18, 2016
Well they can actually prove space junk is caused by humans, so we should be able to fix it...and I don't think there are any conflicting theories on how it happened.

Plus it IS a bigger issue. In future scenarios with or without anthropogenic climate change, we'll still need to leave this planet eventually.

RichManJoe
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 18, 2016
Sometimes I wonder if Homo sapiens are a wise hominid. We seem to mess every nest we have.
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (2) Nov 19, 2016
BackBurner: They said "one" of the biggest, not "THE" biggest. Since we face a lot of problems, of various sizes and threat levels, "biggest" can be a class with multiple members.
ski137
1 / 5 (2) Nov 19, 2016
We can trivialize the impact of humans all we want. Space junk is one of the few that will only affect us. Global warming will run its course, as before.But my money is on the insidious global dispersal of plastic. That will be our greatest nemesis.
dan42day
1 / 5 (5) Nov 19, 2016
When space junk becomes a significant economic problem, i.e. when cable companies can no longer overcharge us for the crap they bounce off satellites, it will be dealt with.

Until then, the cost of implementing any scheme to de-orbit the existing debris just isn't justified. It would be foolish to deploy clean up missions at today's launch costs, especially when those costs are just beginning to come down thanks to private launch companies.

That said, it does make sense to do some research and planning now to develop methods of eventually dealing with it.

Meanwhile procedures are being followed to minimize the expansion of the debris.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 20, 2016
Until then, the cost of implementing any scheme to de-orbit the existing debris just isn't justified
Space-based laser platforms can serve many functions and this is one of them. They can also deflect small meteors threatening sats and stations, provide intrrplanetary propulsion, and possibly even provide power under contract to other orbitals and ground-based users.

This is an investment that could provide immediate returns. Look at all the money spent on superfund sites. I expect some musk-like entrepreneur to be planning a fleet.
cjones1
not rated yet Nov 20, 2016
An international gobbler should be designed to capture space junk, process it, push it into the Earth's atmosphere to burn it up, or send it to another area of space for future processing.
We need the space for future exploration.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 20, 2016
Zapping it is far easier than gobbling it ie changing speed and trajectory and height for every toenail-sized iota.

Come on.
dan42day
1 / 5 (5) Nov 20, 2016
If the gobbler was designed to absorb a significant amount of relative momentum from the junk it interacts with, speed and trajectory changes could be made more economical.

Unfortunately, A space based laser powerful enough to vaporize space debris would probably also be considered a potential weapons system effective against satellites, ballistic missiles, and high flying aircraft, if not ground targets.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (8) Nov 21, 2016
Unfortunately, A space based laser powerful enough to vaporize space debris would probably also be considered a potential weapons system effective against satellites, ballistic missiles, and high flying aircraft, if not ground targets
Pretending to know is not the same as knowing yes? You don't have to vaporize them just de orbit them. And you might imagine that this has been studied extensively. Do a search.
dan42day
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 21, 2016
Pretending to know is not the same as knowing yes? You don't have to vaporize them just de orbit them. And you might imagine that this has been studied extensively. Do a search.


Well my search came up with an USAF plan from the 90's to use lasers to ablate (vaporize) material from objects creating reactions that would eventually de-orbit them. That plan raised concerns over the weapons potential of such a system, much as I "pretended to know".

Another idea surfaced in 2011 calculated to avoid those concerns by using much less powerful lasers that relied on photon momentum and required hours of illumination to effect a single object, but that apparently went nowhere as now there is a proposal to test a small laser using the ablative strategy mounted on the ISS in the next year or so that might pave the way for a 100-500kw pulsed laser satellite sometime in the future.

I repeat, any laser capable of effectively dealing with space debris could also be used as a weapon.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2016
Well my search came up with an USAF plan from the 90's to use lasers to ablate (vaporize) material from objects creating reactions that would eventually de-orbit them. That plan raised concerns over the weapons potential of such a system, much as I "pretended to know".
Right. And ablate to create a plasma puff is not the same as vaporize. Which you didn't know until you searched.

You may also have found a proposed system for the ISS. A station with weapons? Oh no.

Did you know that the curiosity Rover has used its weapon over 300,000 times? Prepare for war-
dan42day
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 22, 2016
And ablate to create a plasma puff is not the same as vaporize


No, not exactly, however the Merriam-Webster dictionary includes,

"to become ablated; especially: vaporize"

in the definition of ablate.

Being a smart-azz is not the same as being smart, yes?
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 22, 2016
And ablate to create a plasma puff is not the same as vaporize


No, not exactly, however the Merriam-Webster dictionary includes,

"to become ablated; especially: vaporize"

in the definition of ablate.

Being a smart-azz is not the same as being smart, yes?
And wrong is wrong no matter what words you use. You left off 'of a surface' smart ass. So youre lazy as well as crooked.
dan42day
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 22, 2016
Wow, didn't mean to throw you into a hussy-fit. I actually agree that lasers would be an efficient method of dealing with space junk that could be targeted, but I also know that it would be difficult to overcome the political aspect.

You really should get a life and not let these comment sections get to you like that.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 23, 2016
You really should get a life and not let these comment sections get to you like that.
Heehee thanks for your consideration troll. You are a master[de]bater indeed sir.

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