Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Low Orbit Junkyard

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Low Orbit Junkyard

Article excerpt

It's time we found an interplanetary version of "Iron Eyes Cody," the teary-eyed actor who made tittering a social stigma through a 1970s television commercial campaign. Buzz Aldrin, maybe? Or Neil Armstrong? Because the problem of space litter is getting out of control. According to a new report by the National Research Council, the amount of debris orbiting Earth has reached a "tipping point" and threatens to cause collisions in outer space.

For years NASA and other space agencies have warned about the growing amount of clutter in Earth's orbit--spent rocket bodies, discarded satellites, and thousands of other pieces of junk, all hurtling around the planet at up to 17,500 miles per hour. The problem is getting worse. The number of orbital debris items tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network grew from 9,949 in December 2006 to 16,094 in July 2011. About 20 percent of the increase came from a 2007 episode during which China blew up a defunct weather satellite as part of an anti-satellite missile test. Thousands of new pieces of space junk were created in 2009 when a working Iridium communications satellite smashed into an out-of-commission Russian satellite.

As the amount of space junk increases, so do the chances that similar collisions will occur, jeopardizing the approximately 1,000 operational satellites orbiting the planet, as well as the International Space Station and space missions. "The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts," says Donald Kessler, a former NASA staffer and chair of the study team. …

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