Vastness of Space Dangerously Cluttered with Junk: Litter Threatens Communications and Space Exploration
Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
The final frontier has gotten mighty trashy these days.
Dead satellites, rocket fragments - there's 40 years of space junk up there. Millions of pieces of high-tech litter cruise above the Earth at 22,000 mph.
But please. It's not space junk. It's called orbital debris, and it's a problem.
Three times in the past year and a half, the space shuttle has performed a fancy maneuver to avoid a fender bender with debris 180 miles up. The Hubble Space Telescope has a few dings. Other spacecraft have not been so lucky.
Smaller Russian and U.S. satellites have been lost after collisions in the past few years. A French satellite lost a stabilizer and its orbit when it was hit with a decade-old chunk of rocket. Another, larger U.S. satellite recorded an average 5,000 impacts a year from debris during its six years in orbit.
"We're onto it. We've got the attention of the international community," said Nick Johnson, a former Cold War-era "threats analyst" who heads up NASA's Orbital Debris Office in Houston. "There's lots going on to deal with potential threats and develop preventative measures."
The United States has tracked satellites since 1957, listing data in the official "Satellite Catalog," which tells when a craft went up - and more importantly, when it may come down again, posing a threat both on Earth and everything orbiting it.
They can always be shot down, though. Last Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that it might target a dying satellite for target practice, using a new ground-based laser weapon.
Zapped satellites would add more debris, however, making more work for the the Space Surveillance Network, an Air Force system in Colorado, that tracks larger hunks of space junk - around 9,500 of them, which must be at least the size of a baseball to warrant their attention. …