The so-called civilized nations have developed a way of life that produces waste at phenomenal rates everywhere on earth. Even outer space is now being trashed. Since "advanced" peoples first began orbiting satellites around the earth in 1957, they have managed to leave behind 7,300 pieces of trash large enough to be tracked routinely by radar. Only a few hundred of these constitute operating payloads. These large pieces of trash include discarded launch rockets, defunct satellites, ejected covers, and even occasional screwdrivers and wrenches. When you count smaller pieces, there are somewhere between 30,000 and 70,000 objects orbiting the earth about the size of golf balls. When you count smaller fragments, they may number in the millions. In 1963, after a failed attempt in 1962, the Air Force secretly put 1.2 billion metal needles into orbit, forming a belt ten miles deep and ten miles wide circling the earth. Their stated goal was to study worldwide radio communications. Since that time, the needles have fallen back to earth and burned up during reentry into the atmosphere.
Even small pieces of space trash are dangerous because they have to be traveling fast to stay in orbit. A piece of space garbage the size of a pea traveling at 11,000 to 20,000 miles an hour can shatter a $100 million satellite. When such collisions occur, they create many small fragments of new space junk, creating a "self-propagating debris swarm," increasing the chances of further collisions.
Major collisions with orbiting solid waste have destroyed two and perhaps three satellites. In 1985 a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) spokesman said, "We might get to where we a see a collision that breaks up an operating satellite once every 10 years." Both the space shuttle and the permanent orbiting space station, planned for launch in the 1990s, will be at risk of collision with space trash.
See "Space Fills Up With Junk," ENVIRONMENT Vol. 27 (May, 1985),
pg. 24, and "Space Debris Poses Danger to Space Flights," C&EN
[CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS] August 22, 1988, pg. 6.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: nasa; military; satellites; space;