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Orbital debris: Creating a Prison for Humanity

You might have come across the word ‘Space debris’ but have you heard about the ‘Orbital debris’ and what is the difference between them? Space debris includes both natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. Meteoroids are in orbit about the sun, while most artificial debris are in orbit about the Earth. Hence, the latter is more commonly referred to as orbital debris.

Orbital debris is any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function. Such debris includes non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.

There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. The average impact speed of a piece of orbital debris running into another object is 22,370 miles per hour. Since it is moving so quickly, a tiny piece of orbital debris can cause a lot of damage. Being hit by a piece of debris smaller than half an inch around – traveling at about six miles per second – would be like being hit by a bowling ball moving at 300 miles per hour. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist. “

Most of that debris sits within 1,250 miles of Earth’s surface which is home to lots of satellites, such as NASA’s Earth Observing System fleet and the International Space Station and known as low Earth orbit. While space is big, so even 23,000 fragments tend to be far from each other, even the tiniest bits of man-made flotsam can be problematic for active earth orbiters because of their breakneck speeds.

The junk includes the stages from rockets that jettison satellites into orbit and the satellites themselves once they die. But it also includes smaller bits and pieces lost to space including paint chips that flake away from the outsides of devices, nuts and bolts, garbage bags, a lens cap, screwdriver, and even a spatula.

As the skies become increasingly crowded with scientific and commercial orbiters, all nations need to pitch in to quell the growing problem.

The cadre of concepts in development to control space junk often sound more like science fiction than reality. JAXA, Japan’s space agency, is testing an electronic space whip that stretches six football fields long, known as the electrodynamic tether (EDT). The electrified line, nearly 2,300 feet long, is capped with a 44-pound weight. When deployed, it’s intended to knock debris out of orbit, sending it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

And that is far from the only option. Other proposals include giant magnetsharpoons, and nets to safely whittle down the growing debris cloud. Many nations are tackling the problem from the other side of the equation, ensuring that any future man-made orbiters sent to soar above Earth’s surface have an appropriate end-of-life plan to limit the growing cloud of debris that envelops our home planet. But all the solutions are in testing phase and haven’t been implemented. Each year we lose 3-4 satellites because of this and if we don’t find any solution in next 5-10 years then we may lose everything. This will hurt the economy of each and every country hard in all the sectors.

Thinking out of the box can help us to get out of the mess which we have created. We are facing a lot of issues which require solutions. If you want to see the change then contribute in it. Come and join us at www.botsnbrain.com .

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