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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Lunar Madness: Orbital Debris
by Paul Byrne
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Lets turn our attention to space for a moment. As you might have guessed, there is another problem regarding waste that has been the result of human endeavours. Its orbital debris caused by the inept disposal of satellites and spent space shuttle rocket stages, quite literally exploding in orbit around the earth. The result of this is a cloud of fragments orbiting the planet travelling at speeds of 3-6 kilometres a second.
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An example would be, say a flake of paint was to hit a spacecraft in orbit at this speed. The impression left would be one the size of a golf ball. This is mainly why space shuttles manoeuvre themselves upside-down and backwards once in orbit. Of course in true Michael Moore style, the opinion of NASA was that such fragments were frozen bits of nuclear reactor coolant leaking from Russian orbiting craft. But that was during the cold war. Scapegoat aside, there is approximately 70,000 objects 2 cm in size floating about a kilometre above our heads. And that's only a small part of it.
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Considering that these little swords of Damocles are orbiting above us, an immediate concern would be to wonder how dangerous this situation is to us down here on the ground. Truth is, your odds on getting struck by one of these fragments are about 1 in a trillion. To put it in context, getting hit by lightning is 1.4 million. However there has been an incident where someone did receive an unusual touch on the shoulder one day. But wasn't injured.
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Ms. Lottie Williams was out walking in Tulsa, Oklahoma when she won this bizarre reverse lottery and afterwards, could be seen posing for photos smiling radiantly, holding a twisted lump of metal the size of a hand. Strong Lady. However this isn't the only isolated occurrence of bits of metal falling from the skies. In Capitan Bermudez, about 400km from Buenos Aires, the inhabitants witnessed 'incandescent meteors' in the night sky, and then had metal fragments scattered all throughout the town the next morning. The speed of these fragments falling would have been 30-300km/hr for lighter to heavier objects upon landing. Other instances of orbital debris around theworld can surely only have gone unrecorded. I dread to think of a piece of debris causing a plane crash. The media would have a field day. And with that, lets turn our attention to the skies.
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The particles in a low earth orbit may be numerous, but mainly they consist of parts that burnt and broke up upon re-entry, and are thus just small particles and flakes. However, up at a geosynchronous altitude (about 36,000km from the earth, where an object can turn in orbit with the planet and thus appear not to move) are where most satellites operate and the problems get worse. It's something that Arthur C. Clarke has remarked upon as being 'the single largest long-term threat to the continued use of space for satellites and especially for manned missions.'
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At this height, the management of orbital debris has been previously handled in a gentlemen's-agreement manner between the space-faring nations, with recommendations that are rarely put to use. A safe measure with satellites is to save enough fuel to put them into a graveyard orbit (about 300km above geosynchronous) at the end of their useful life, where they can stay for hundreds of years. This is rather than bring the disused satellites back to earth, still an inaccurate science as to where the buggers will land, never mind the cost. This is a short-term cure that hasn't even been utilised, where last year, only 6 of 15 satellites actually reached graveyard orbit, and the others, to be dealt with later. When the technology's up to it.
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It is a problem that could shut down the space industry, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken some measures, against commercial interests. The ruling was that all U.S. launched satellites would have to put into the graveyard orbit, and other nations' whose satellites that didn't do the same would not receive an FCC license, which is essential for these corporations trading in the U.S. with satellite telemetric data.
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So they do care then. Or possibly it could be, since Reagan, America has had a space programme planning to send men to Mars. Or even maybe even the $100 billion International Space Station due to receive its first occupants on November 2nd could be the reason. Regardless, it would seem that this is another problem born out of carelessness (by the intellectually superior no less), but one this time, of commercial satellite companies and space agencies, the ones who made it a problem in the first place. But, bear in mind that the next shooting star you wish upon probably isn't one. Explains why the things don't bloody work then.
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