Monday, May 12, 2014


I have written of the various technologies emerging from specific countries and I am pleased that worldwide this has been recognized as a priority. Interesting was of late the Department of Defense, the FAA and the FCC were called in by the House of Representatives to speak to what they called ‘the emerging issue of space debris.’ Interesting that they referred to it as emerging when the most recent data places the number of debris at 20,000+ in Low Earth Orbit and the NASA site states 500,000 pieces of spacejunk.)

So with thoughts on space debris again I thought we should review where we’ve been and where we hopefully are going.

Consider this my top ten plus list all though there have been a number of ‘almosts’ be it the ISS changing into a higher orbit or flights en route to the station, or other satellites…this growing problem is requiring a space-air traffic controller!

1)      A most recent addition to space debris, the failed Russian Mars probe (the 14.5 ton Phobos-Grunt) which became stuck in Earth’s orbit after launch on November 8 and was carrying tons of toxic fuel then returned to Earth on Sunday January 15, 2012 splashing down in the Pacific Ocean just west of Chile.


2)But that was far from the only incident of probes or satellites splashing down. In September 2011 the US military’s Upper Atmosphere Satellite (UARs) came from the sky to its resting spot in the northern Pacific – west of California.


3)      In October also 2011 the 20 year old retired German satellite/space telescope called Roentgen Satellite (ROSAT )re-entered over South-East Asia. It was the size of a car.


4)      February of 2008 the US Navy intercepted its own defunct ‘spy satellite’ – but none of the debris was any larger than a football.


5)      Turkey, Oklahoma in January of 1997 a woman was struck with a lightweight fragment of charred woven material which is believed to have originated from a steel propellant tank and a titanium pressure sphere.


6)      In the 1960’s at first believed to be some sort of UFO phenomenon several mysterious sphere’s turned up in Western Australia. Eventually it was identified as a tank used for drinking water on the Gemini V spacecraft launched & then splashing down in 1965.


7)      Secret Soviet-navy satellite, Cosmos 954, launched in 1977 spiraled out of control. Because it contained a compact nuclear reactor its reentry was most frightening for people on the ground. In 1978 it reentered over Canada and spread debris across the frozen ground of the Canadian Arctic.


8)      In 2001 a Delta 2 third stage (PAM-D or Payload Assist Module-Delta) reentered the atmosphere over the Middle East and the titanium motor casing slammed down in Saudi Arabia and the titanium pressure tank landed near Seguin, Texas – also, the main propellant tank appeared in Geargetown, Texas.


9)      In May of 1966 litter from a stage of the Saturn development test (SA-5) consisting of an oval shaped metal piece as well as a cone-like structure and four pieces of wire made their landing in Rio Negro District of Brazil.


10)   In February 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry resulting in the death of seven astronauts. This catastrophic event left thousands of pieces of debris across a 28,000 square mile area in eastern Texas. Recovery was made of more than 80,000 pieces.


11)   The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory was deorbited due to a crippled gyroscope in June of 2000. First to pop off in the Earth's atmosphere were its solar panels and antennas, while many other parts likely melted. Additionally about 13,227 pounds of debris from the observatory splashed down into the Pacific Ocean southeast of Hawaii.


12)   Said to have created sonic booms caused by the heavy debris of the MIR Russian Space Station, the 15-year-old Russian Space Station began its suicidal reentry in March of 2001. Reentry was over the Pacific Ocean near Fiji. Whilemost of the station, weighing 286,600 pounds burned up in the atmosphere, about 1,500 fragments reached Earth's surface. Beachgoers in Nadi, Fiji, snapped photos of blazing bits of Mir debris.


13)   And speaking of space stations - Weighing in at 77 tons, the first and only solely-U.S. space station Skylab launched in May 1973 came down from the heavens in 1979 raining chunks of debris across an area that stretched from the Southeastern Indian Ocean across a sparsely populated section of Western Australia.


But all these representations are just that, mere representations. In truth there is so much more that has come down and while up there threatens either current space flights or other satellites. There is precedence for this. Consider incident that occurred in 2007 when China destroyed one of its own – an aging Fengyun-1C weather satellite – via an anti-satellite test. This debris went on to collision involving the Chinese space junk and Russia's small Ball Lens in the Space (BLITS).

NOW let me review a few of the techniques being suggested/tested/planned to deal with this major problem.


1)      From scientists in Switzerland we get CleanSpaceOne which is set for its first launch in 2015. To be tested on one of Switzerland’s own satellites, CleanSpaceOne is a space janitor of sorts who goes up, locks the defunct satellite in a death grip and then plunges down to its suicide, burning up in reentry. The plan is to send many up as it is a onetime action each time.


2)      Nitto Seimo is a manufacturer of fishing nets. In 2011 they teamed up with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency in forming a giant net that would sweep up junk in the Earth’s orbit. The plan is to stretch the net into space as it collects the trash and then an electrical charge will pull it back to Earth destroying the trash. The details are a tad sketchy on several points from how the trash will be gathered while the active satellites will remain and how it will cross the orbits without itself becoming space debris. It is likely all worked out.

3)      LASERs. I give them a heading rather than a country as the ESA recently expressed a plan that involved lasers but many years ago NASA had done the same. The idea was to shoot a laser and ‘nick’ the edge of a satellite sending it down to burn up in the atmosphere.


When NASA floated this idea it was in the interest of international cooperation as it was considered too pricey for one country alone.

4)      4. Another plan by the ESA is Galactic Garbage “Trucks”. The ESA will launch Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) in 2015. These ATVs are unmanned cargo freighters with optical sensors that are able to detect garbage and then return it to Earth. One possible problem; NASA has been at the table discussing the problem of space debris for years because it is far more than the actual problem involved but politics as well. Country A does not want Country B to gain access to its technology on the now defunct spy satellite much less no about its existence as perhaps it was called a weather satellite originally.


5)      An idea that sounds really cool and a little Sci Fi comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA-the US Defense Departments technology sector).  DARPA’s Phoenix program plans on using robots that tag along on commercial satellite launches and then refurbish/recycle defunct satellites in space. A brilliant idea as there are billions of dollars of assets up there and when a satellite dies certain parts remain valuable, such as antennas. The Phoenix mission has an expected launch of 2015 and has reportedly targeted 140 dead satellites for repurposing.


6)      Another NASA project is the SpaDE system.  This system plans to remove debris from orbit by firing focused pulses of atmospheric gases into the path of targeted debris. These pulses will increase drag sufficiently to cause the deorbit rate to exceed the debris generation rate. The pulses themselves will fall back into the atmosphere, leaving no residual trace in orbit to interfere with LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites. In contrast to other proposed methods, SpaDE is failsafe, in that it places no solid material in orbit where a malfunction could create new debris.


And this is just a sampling as there are more from Canada’s refueling in space which will limit the formation of debris, the US is also planning something similar – no surprise since a joint NASA-Canadian was the Robotic Refueling Mission.


Regardless, in addition to the world coming up with ideas and 2015 seeming to be the date on everybody’s calendar to test the different methods, it is also being discussed. ALSO we are looking ahead with regard to the moon and not leaving debris in orbit that will cause problems down the road.

These efforts make me feel the world wants to accomplish something, let’s hope they do. 2015, it doesn’t seem so far!

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