Space Junk

Are you aware of the problem of Space Junk?

In a nutshell, it’s this:

We are good at sending things into space.

We are less good at returning them safely and responsibly to earth after their usefulness is at an end.

So we have sent thousands of satellites into orbit, and … okay, brief detour. Look, space is big, okay? (Really, mind-bogglingly big, to quote Douglas Adams.) Big like the ocean is big, except bigger, and seemingly infinite. Except not infinite, because only the part of space that’s particularly close to Earth is particularly useful to us most of the time. So even though space feels infinite, the part of space that we are using is decidedly, well, not.

(If you’re interested in such things, this site is pretty cool.)

So. We have sent thousands of satellites into orbit, but because space seems so big, we haven’t been particularly arsed about what happens to these satellites when they break down or when they serve their purpose or for whatever reason stop functioning or are no longer needed. “Just let it float away out there,” we seem to have told ourselves, “it won’t matter. Space is big.”

Which is true, until you consider that those thousands of satellites are, each of them, travelling at upwards of thousands of miles an hour. Which is, uh, really fast. And as you will remember from high school physics, even a tiny, insignificant object traveling at a speed that’s, uh, really fast, can do significant damage to your precious vital organs. (This is how guns work and why Americans love them!) Or to our precious space satellites.

Space is mostly empty, but it’s not all empty, and there are always bits of rock from distant asteroids or shards of ice from passing comets or celestial teapots from philosophy classes whizzing around out there, and occasionally, one of these tiny little things will hit another tiny little thing out in space with a force like a couple hundred pounds of TNT. This turns the little things involved into even smaller little things that then fly off, themselves at thousands of miles per hour, to smash into other things. (If you saw Gravity, you saw this effect in action, to horrifying results!)

This effect can cascade quickly. A satellite smashed by a meteor scatters its guts across low-earth orbit and takes out several other satellites, which scatter their guts and … you get the idea. Experts believe that, if not somehow dealt with, the resultant chain reactions will eventually all but prohibit travel in space for satellites, let alone people — to go into space would be the equivalent of stepping into a galactic shooting gallery.

And how do we deal with it?

The answer right now seems to be a collective shoulder shrug with a lot of uncomfortable throat-clearing.

This is, to put it bluntly, a problem.

And it’s a perfect metaphor for so many of the problems facing society today. Our blind rush to one-up each other, to get those satellites up there without worrying about how to safely get them down again, is literally choking the skies to the point that nobody can use them.

I don’t have a solution for this. But I learned about it several years ago and every now and then, I think about it, and it worries me. I just thought you ought to know about it, too. So I don’t have to worry alone.

Space Junk, Space Debris, Orbits, Space, Universe

As if all of us didn’t have enough to worry about.

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