Garbage: Where Man Has Gone Before

Montreal - Last week McGill hosted a conference aimed at establishing an international code of conduct to tackle problems posed by the increasing volume of debris orbiting earth; the conference ended yesterday.
The one article that broached the subject (written by Max Harrold of The Montreal Gazette and reprinted in nearly every paper and news site across the country) gave an estimate of roughly 13,000 to 20,000 pieces of garbage floating in space. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, this merely represents the number of orbital debris larger than 10 cm; they estimate the total number of orbital debris to be around 330,000,000.

Orbital debris is any human-made object in orbit that no longer serves a useful purpose, and despite a lack of serious media attention, orbital debris has now been a problem for years; the oldest piece of space junk dates back from 1958. Orbital debris includes a tremendous amount of defunct satellites—there have been over 4000 satellite launches and only about 800 of them are currently active—and fragments from destroyed satellites (nearly all intentionally). Floating in space are also spent rocket stages, slag, coolant, bolts, and other discarded particles. And not only have Astronauts lost various items during extravehicular activities (EVA), they have been continually instructed to jettison their garbage in space; Mir cosmonauts have been tossing out their garbage bags for the 15 years it was operational; Expedition 15 astronauts tossed out containers of ammonia and other junk from the International Space Station (then afterwards had to change the space station’s trajectory to avoid collision with these items). Wherever we go, wherever we are, we create so much garbage that this eventually becomes a threat…

Below is an image depicting the estimated number of debris currently orbiting the earth.

There’s so much junk in space that potential collisions have become a real nuisance. In fact, hazard analysis conducted for planned shuttle missions conclude that the shuttles’ greatest risk are from space debris, with a 1-in-185 to a 1-in-300 risk of catastrophic impact depending on the mission’s targeted altitude.
And worse, much of that debris eventually falls back down to earth, posing a risk for humans.
Last year, Americans had to destroy a toxic satellite which they feared may hit land. But fear not, despite a near collision with a Lan Airline Airbus A320 in 2007, we are told chances are that the large objects that don’t burn up during re-entry into our atmosphere will probably fall into our oceans. In regards to those Ammonia tanks mentioned above, Bob Dempsey, NASA's lead flight director for Expedition 15, had this to say, "We don't know where [the debris] is going to land yet. It will likely be over the ocean and shouldn't damage satellites or other spacecraft in orbit.”
So now we’re polluting our oceans from space…

It’s great that efforts are finally being made to attack this growing concern; however it’s disappointing to see that we’ve waited until this has become a major hazard to finally address it.
Further, there are no talks about cleaning up this junk, only to limit further increases.

What’s even more disappointing is learning the real reason why attention is now being given to this subject; that article I refer to in the beginning of this post focuses on economic aspects as reasons why this is an important issue; environmental issues are not mentioned, period. In fact, the author, Max Harrold, introduces the problem with, “There certainly is cause for concern. In February, an inactive Russian satellite collided with a communications satellite, knocking out cellphone service for some.”
And according to Gerard Brachet, a French space policy consultant who attended the conference, every time more debris is created it raises the safety and liability risks of satellites. “There is now a much higher likelihood that satellites will get hit. Insurance companies don’t like this.”

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© 2009, Pascal-Denis Lussier
Image source: NASA

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