The Future of Space Travel is Yucky

July 14 2008 / by jcchan / In association with Future
Category: Space   Year: Beyond   Rating: 7 Hot

Ah, space tourism. You ditched Paris or Tokyo to the dismay of your spouse and now sit some 600 miles above Earth with an ice-cold Mojito in hand. “See, honey? This isn’t so bad.” As you take a sip the pilot speaks over the intercom about some turbulence. That’s fine you think, it can’t be bad as the bumpy airplane trips to Los Angeles back when you were a kid.

Just then, you see gold specks scream pass the window at 17,500 miles an hour, followed by the loud thud of a space helmet that leaves a considerable dent in your window outside. The entire space-plane trembles violently as red lights flood on. The pilot reassures that it was just space turbulence and to strap on seat belts. “This wasn’t mentioned in the catalogue” you thought, your spouse giving you a look that you know all too well.

This may not be the common vision of space tourism but the reality is that since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik back in 1958 there is an estimated one million pieces of junk floating in orbit. Of those, 9,000 objects are bigger than a tennis ball, large enough to cause catastrophic damage to moving space shuttles, satellites, and space stations. Most are pieces from old satellites and garbage left behind by previous missions. Adding to this mess are nuts, bolts, and screwdrivers that have errantly drifted into space from missions, and an expensive Hasselblad camera with exposed pictures still inside.

According to the European Space Agency, of the 5,500 tons of material in orbit, 93% is junk that includes parts of old spacecraft, depleted rocket boosters, garbage bags ,and even nuclear coolant. Each piece can and are dividing into more pieces. Only 7% of the material in orbit is operational spacecraft in use.

Besides posing an ethical problem of using our orbit as a landfill, the junk pose a big problem to current and future missions because of their ultra-high velocities in orbit. At 17,500 miles per hour, a millimeter speck of paint has the same amount of energy as a .22 caliber long rifle bullet, a pea sized piece has the lethal potential of a 400-lb safe traveling at 60 mph, and a tennis ball sized piece of metal is essentially 25 sticks of floating dynamite.

So what can we do about this junk? Is there a way to get it out of orbit? Perhaps zap it? Or give it a nudge? (cont.)

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