China’s satellite almost crashed into International Space Station! Now scientists are sweating over space junk

As per NASA, both the orbital debris and spacecraft travel at speeds of about 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit. (Modeling image: IRAS/TU Braunschweig via ESA)

Space Junk: If you are at all interested in the activities happening outside the Earth, you would have heard that recently, that a defunct Chinese satellite nearly collided with the International Space Station, and it was only averted when the ISS manoeuvred out of the way. While the event was enough to bring up the debate of space junk all over again, what has added to it is the fact that a new study has found that very soon, the Earth could also have Saturn-like rings – but of space junk! And if that is not troublesome, I don’t know what is.

Here’s some context for you. According to US space agency NASA, the US Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors are tracking over 27,000 pieces of space junk, or as they are technically called – “orbital debris”. Now I know what you are thinking – 27,000 pieces in the vast space? That’s not so bad. But it is, because these are pieces in the near-Earth space environment. And there are many more pieces that are present close to Earth but are not large enough to be tracked. They are, however, large enough to cause trouble for “human spaceflight and robotic missions”.

Also read | Is it Earth or is it Saturn? Soon, space junk will form rings around our planet and its very troubling

As per NASA, both the orbital debris and spacecraft travel at speeds of about 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit, and therefore, even a tiny piece of space junk can cause major damage if it were to collide with a spacecraft. “The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, including to the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon,” NASA says.

Space Junk explained

“Orbital debris is any human-made object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves a useful function. Such debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris,” NASA explains.

With space junk travelling at very high speeds, not only do ISS and rockets need swift manoeuvres, but scientists would have to ensure that new satellites have a swift automated response to detect and prevent collision with the orbital debris, or investments worth millions of dollars would vanish into thin air, quite literally.

The concerns around space junk have been increasing ever since an inactive Russian satellite collided with an active US one back in 2009 while they were travelling at speeds of about 22,300 mph and turned into thousands of pieces of tiny debris.

Space junk not only pollutes space (which should, frankly, be left free from the ill-effects of human life), but it also causes a vicious cycle to emerge. Orbital debris can collide with other human made objects and in turn create more pieces of debris which would each prove to be hazardous while whizzing about in space. Not only that, but if the debris is also likely to collide with other celestial objects that might cross the orbit of the Earth and cause some damage to them.

However, recognising this problem, more and more space agencies and organisations are trying to come up with a solution.

Japan had a few years ago sent an experimental space junk “collector” that would grab onto pieces of space junk and bring them to the Earth’s atmosphere to be incinerated. This experiment, however, had failed when the spacecraft’s tether failed to be deployed.

Not being discouraged by this, however, Japan’s Astroscale earlier this year launched a demonstration satellite that would locate and retrieve used satellites and other pieces of space junk. Apart from this, the European Space Agency has also finalised a contract for a 2025 mission to capture and dispose of a piece of space junk with the help of a four-armed claw.

One thing that is bothering, though, is that while some private companies are concerned about space and cosmic pollution, the focus of NASA with regard to space junk ends at its impact on satellites and spacecraft. Though that is a fair concern and an important issue considering the increasing space exploration missions that are being carried out, it is not the only one, nor should it be the main one.

The main issue is that just like the Earth, too much junk or debris can cause a cosmic imbalance at least around the Earth, Moon and Mars, where most of the exploration missions are headed at the moment. It is estimated that an average of 400 pieces of space junk (very small pieces) fall on Earth every year, but now, larger pieces of debris are also floating about. Such pieces of junk, while relatively harmless now, can create major problems in how the solar system functions if they accumulate in large numbers. Right now, air pollution on Earth blocks our view of the sky, but exaggerated as this may seem, who knows — one day we might just see a whole lot of space junk in the sky! It could also alter the balance between Earth and space due to such close proximity to our planet, and such an imbalance might lead to the end of all life on the planet. We already know that conditions required for sustaining life are rare and any change can cause the scale to tip. We really need to ask ourselves — is space junk really the hill we want to die on?

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