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Tuesday 29 July 2014

A visual representation of space debris population in low Earth orbit. - Image credit: Nasa

A visual representation of space debris population in low Earth orbit. - Image credit: Nasa

Orbit

Orbital Space Junk Will Make Private Space Travel From Firms Like SpaceX Impossible

by jason prechtel

In previous weeks, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company Stratolaunch Systems unveiled its plan to launch rockets into space using a specially-designed airplane by 2016. This comes on the heels of news thatSpaceX‘s Dragon capsule will be the first privately-made module to dock with the International Space Station and Virgin Galactic’s plans to start launching into space as soon as next year.

With these recent announcements about long-term private space ventures becoming a reality, many writers (including myself) have been very optimistic about the future of space travel. However, there is one glaring problem these private firms haven’t addressed: The dangers posed by space junk accumulating in the Earth’s orbit. Not only will the space junk problem slow down the growth of space travel technology, but it will also lead to necessary governmental regulations on private space travel to curb the further growth of debris.

The graphics in this post are computer generated images of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95% of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. These images provide a good visualization of where the greatest orbital debris populations exist. Each graphic in this post is generated from a different observation point.

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For full image and caption Click to Enlarge

According to a recent study by the National Research Council, the Earth’s orbit has reached a “tipping point” in space junk accumulation where items such as parts from old satellites and rocket boosters can continually collide with other pieces to create more debris. While many pieces fall back into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up in the process, at least 20,000 pieces of soda can-sized space junk are still in low-Earth orbit. The velocity of these orbiting pieces of debris can potentially damage and destroy satellites and spaceships, and in the process create even more debris. The problem has reached the point where some scientists believe that in 10 to 30 years, the accumulating junk could make some regions of the atmosphere off-limits to space travel.

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For full image and caption Click to Enlarge

As more and more countries and corporations develop their own space capabilities, some sort of international system to monitor space junk will need to develop in order to prevent accidents that could create more debris in the Earth’s orbit. Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, has called for international cooperation to deal with the orbiting debris, and an Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee exists to unite these efforts.

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For full image and caption Click to Enlarge

The Federal Aviation Administration is faced with licensing companies for space travel and a substantial number of laws already exist in the U.S. regulating commercial space flight. If the accumulation of space debris continues at a growing rate, the FAA and similar organizations worldwide may impose stricter requirements on spaceship designs, launch procedures, and flight durations. While increased regulations would reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic accident in space, they would also increase the costs of already expensive private space programs, decrease the number of new investors, and reduce the speed of technological innovation overall.

Despite sentiments from Virgin Galactic Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Steve Iskaowitz, space is not entirely “wide open” and serious measures need to be taken to ensure that we will be able to develop sustainable space travel without completely trashing the upper reaches of the atmosphere for future generations.

Instead of space tourism, perhaps Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Stratolaunch would be better off investing in space garbage collection.

Jason Prechtel is the editor-in-chief of Culture Bore, a blog about geopolitics, globalization, history, and more. This article originally published on the web site Policymic, re-posted by permission. Copyright 2012 Jason Prechtel, All Rights Reserved.

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One Response to “Orbital Space Junk Will Make Private Space Travel From Firms Like SpaceX Impossible”

  1. The concern over space junk is primarily due to the obsession to try and get risk to zero. Those dots in the picture are shown about a million times actual size; and no, I am not using hyperbole, they would have to be rendered with that exaggeration to actually show up in that picture. They would be about a 150 kilometres across rather than the actual 0.00015 kilometres.

    Any attempt to clean up the debris in orbit is a monumentally difficult task because any scheme we can come up with to collect it is stymied by how incredibly diffuse and tiny the objects actually are.

    Comparing it to airplanes and the hundreds of millions of birds that occupy the same airspace, we are talking about a volume thousands of times larger holding less than a thousandths of objects. You are probably a million times more likely to be brought down by a bird in a plane than a piece of debris in a rocket.

    We’ve seem the destruction created when objects in space do collide but if we were to assign the same level of safety requirements to all aspects of our life, we would have to petition the state for a permit every time we wanted to step out of our house.

    To go into any frontier is dangerous and always will be. People WILL die. Those who are too afraid to take that chance can stay home… all I ask is that they don’t stop those who are brave enough to go.

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