Space Junk Is Getting Serious

Here is an extended quote from the Preface of a new publication you may find interesting. I thought it was fascinating:

In 1995, the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Space Debris wrote,

The threat that orbital debris poses to international space activities is presently not large, but it may be on the verge of becoming significant. If and when it does, the consequences could be very costly–and extremely difficult to reverse. By contrast, the cost of reducing the growth of the hazard can be relatively low….The committee believes that spacefaring nations should take judicious, timely steps now to understand the risk and agree on ways to reduce it.

At that time, no destructive collisions between active spacecraft and debris or meteoroids2 had been recorded. In addition, the amount of debris in orbit did not include the aftermath of the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision and the 2007 on-orbit destruction by the Chinese of a weather satellite as part of an anti-satellite test. Both of those events greatly increased the amount of debris in the near-Earth space environment, thus pushing the threat posed by orbital debris even further toward what was described more than 15 years ago as “on the verge of becoming significant.”

You can get the report here.


  1. #1 Bruce
    September 1, 2011

    Oh goodie, another long-term global threat that some group will call a liberal hoax.

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    September 1, 2011

    There’s a very real danger at this point that we will soon run into a real Kessley syndrome situation. In that situation the debris becomes so bad that debris is frequently colliding with other debris making more and more debris rendering the useful low Earth orbits unusable. This would be really bad.

    We have taken a few steps to help matters. For example, it became apparent that the Delta rockets were causing a lot of space debris and the more recent versions have been redesigned to minimize those issues. Unfortunately, many rockets from other countries and some other US rockets still have serious problems. There’s no indication that China is taking any serious steps to minimize space debris.

    There have been some attempts to require people who put up satellites to have plans for either deorbiting them or parking them in graveyard orbits. That’s now being done for most civilian satellites.

    The current engineering solutions for removing space debris are also lacking. There’s a proposal to use lasers to ablate small bits of debris but this is politically not great since lasers powerful enough to do that could be used as weapons. Most of the other proposals have other problems or have the same problem: essentially any method of easily deorbiting objects is going to be a threat to satellites.

  3. #3 Vince whirlwind
    September 1, 2011

    Maybe we could send a team of astronauts led by Bruce Willis to land on a suitable asteroid and re-orient it to make it do a very close pass of the earth and in the process brush up all the rubbish?

  4. #4 itzac
    September 1, 2011

    Maybe we can make some use of Apophis.

  5. #5 Art
    September 2, 2011

    I’ve been waiting for well financed gangsters to launch a few missiles armed with BBs into LEO in a east to west direction. The warheads would be set to explode and scatter their cargo of BBs if they don’t get regular inputs of an ever-changing password. The price for space to stay open would be a billion dollars a month.

    For an interesting twist you could substitute plastic beads, which would disintegrate in time with UV exposure, or an appropriate liquid which would sublimate away. The idea being they could sweep away all the satellites in LEO but have the projectiles go away with time.

    Problem with that being that any satellites destroyed would be blown to pieces which, in turn, become projectiles that take out more satellites which …

    What the rate of clearance would be, given the random nature of the encounters, would be is anyone’s guess. As usual destroying is always easier than building. What you might do with your ill-gotten billions is up in the air after you have destroyed all the satellites and made spaceflight untenable for months/years/generations. I wouldn’t be expecting any Christmas cards.

  6. #6 Thomas
    September 2, 2011

    A nuclear detonation in LEO would also be effective. You’d saturate the orbit with charged particles that would render at least civilian satellites useless. (Maybe military ones are sufficiently hardened to survive) This could be an effective deterrent for a small nuclear country like North Korea that doesn’t itself rely on satellites and isn’t liked by the rest of the world anyway.

  7. #7 Joshua Zelinsky
    September 2, 2011

    Art, that’s a brilliant idea for a hard scifi story.

  8. #8 Jesse
    September 2, 2011

    Y’know, I do think it cool that there is a bot that can turn posts into Turkish… but I always wondered why Turkish? I see that alot, is all.

    Back to topic.

    The down side of the satellite doomsday weapon is that it might preclude someone from launching anything of their own later on, and your allies as well might need their satellites to function.

    I’m not sure the effect on the world economy, either — 10 years ago I’d have said that many areas would be fine. Not so now. It wouldn’t be a death blow but there would be ancillary effects from the loss of weather data in some cases and GPS. The telecoms industry would be hit hard. Oddly enough satellite TV would be OK in some cases and many satellites that serve poorer countries would be intact since they are higher up. (Thuraya for instance is MEO I think, but correct me if I am wrong).

    But I could certainly see someone accidentally doing the BB thing (or something like it). That almost seems more likely…

  9. #9 NJ
    September 2, 2011

    OK, since nobody else is gonna do it:

  10. #10 Jazzee
    September 2, 2011

    Dear Team and readers, as a participant of Singularity University ’11 at NASA Ames, I would be very happy to share with you my video about space debris :

    I hope you will like it and feel free to publish it and share it.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    September 2, 2011

    If you really saturated a polar orbit with debris, you also render ICBMs useless.

  12. #12 Anton P. Nym
    September 2, 2011

    I’ve been waiting for well financed gangsters to launch a few missiles armed with BBs into LEO in a east to west direction. The warheads would be set to explode and scatter their cargo of BBs if they don’t get regular inputs of an ever-changing password. The price for space to stay open would be a billion dollars a month.

    I have a folder in my filing cabinet (gathering dust for nigh-on twenty years, alas) with the failed remains of a technothriller based on something very similar; only the ASATs were disguised as failed launches into polar orbits. Made interceptions a lot trickier; one reason I didn’t finish the outline is that the orbital math went waaaaaay beyond what I could handle very quickly, and I soon lost track of what would be plausible and what would just be “crazy Buck Rogers stuff”.

    Oh well, I guess I blew my chance to be a prophet…

    — Steve

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 2, 2011

    daedalus2u: Good point

    Anton: Blog it!

  14. #14 daedalus2u
    September 2, 2011

    Greg, I once had the idea that if you did bring an asteroid into a capture orbit around the Earth you would have enough material to do it.

  15. #15 Thomas
    September 3, 2011

    daedalus2u, that idea was used in “Fallen Dragon” by Peter Hamilton. A colony decided that they *really* didn’t want any more visits from Earth so they blew up an asteroid they had brought into orbit and used for mining.