Can space junk be touched?


It is a well-known fact that manmade debris still in orbit is becoming a growing threat for human beings and equipment in space, and scientists around the world are looking for a way to deal with the problem.

“They can travel at nine times the speed of a bullet, and reside in an area that’s 200,000 times the volume of Earth’s oceans” said Defense Industry Daily. According to the Wall Street Journal, the biggest contribution to space junk came in 2007 when China fired a missile to destroy one of its satellites.

In 1980, a total of 5 396 man-made objects were counted in space. In 2010, there were 15 639 objects and 21 000 in 2014. Those figures will keep growing as one satellite is destroyed each year on average.

Consequently, Trevor Thomas, Lockheed Martin spokesman, said that “there are up to 200 threats a day identified for orbiting satellites”. If satellites are made to resist most impacts, the threat remains. There have been 9 known collisions between 1961 and 2013 such as in 1996, when a French satellite was destroyed by the debris from a French rocket. In 2009, a US satellite hit a defunct Russian one and exploded. Windows of the space shuttle had to be replaced because of multiple impacts with junk.

To deal with this threat, the USA has created a radar system to monitor the debris and get astronauts and equipment out of harm’s way before impact. One component is the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), able to detect and track debris thanks to nine radars based around the US. But the AFSSS system was shut down in 2013 because of budget cuts, which removed 40% of the surveillance network’s observation capability and all of its long distance capability that monitored the threat for military geosynchronous orbit satellites. But a new fence system will – hopefully soon enough – fix this problem courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

The new fence programme will use a combination of optical and laser tracking technology from different tracking stations around the globe to detect, track and characterize man-made debris. For instance, Lockheed Martin recently signed an agreement with Electro Optic System Holdings to build one station to be operational by early 2016 in Australia. The Australia station should boost the industry’s ability to monitor space junk by about 25%.

But monitoring debris is not enough to be safe in space. This is why some researches are keen to destroy space junk. For instance, EOS is investigating the potential for powerful plasma beams to zap space junk. Other companies in the US are trying to use lasers to perform the same task. The Japanese will try something different as they launch a huge magnetic net to test if they can collect debris and pull them downward into Earth’s atmosphere where they would be burned up. Also, MIT students backed by DARPA and NASA are looking for an algorithm which will help in cleaning up debris in the geosynchronous orbit by analysing the rotation of objects in space.

Republished with permission from ADIT – The Bulletin.