Space Increasingly Congested With Junk
GUY RAZ, host:
The planet Saturn may have its elegant rings, but it turns out, so does Earth. Except here, it's a ring of trash, trash that floats in Earth's low orbit. A new interim report out of the Pentagon says the growing amount of space junk threatens to severely disrupt satellite communication.
Now these are pieces of old rockets and shards of exploded missiles and defunct satellites. And all of those things are moving very fast around five miles per second.
Vitoria Samson has read the Pentagon study. She's with the Secure World Foundation. That's a private space research body and she's in the studio with me.
Ms. VICTORIA SAMSON (Director of Washington Operations, Secure World Foundation): Thank you.
RAZ: All right. So how bad is it up there? Some scientists say we have reached a tipping or we might be near a tipping point.
Ms. SAMSON: Right. Right now, there's 21,000 pieces of tractable debris that the United States military is following.
RAZ: Tractable means softball size (unintelligible).
Ms. SAMSON: Tractable means it's about the size of a softball. And there could be, and there probably is, hundreds of thousands of pieces that are smaller than that.
And the problem is, of course, at the speeds that we're talking anything larger than a (unintelligible) could be catastrophic.
RAZ: When did it become clear that space trash was a big problem?
Ms. SAMSON: Oh, I think it's been clear for some time now, but we really had a wakeup call, well, within the past couple of years. The first one was in January 2007 when China had an anti-satellite test.
Ms. SAMSON: Right now, there is about 3,300 pieces of tractable debris that we're following from that.
RAZ: And they literally sent up a missile to destroy an old satellite, which is burst into thousands of pieces of debris.
Ms. SAMSON: Exactly. And they did it at an altitude where debris sticks around for a while. The closer you get to Earth, the faster the debris reenters. But the farther out you go, it can be around for tens, hundreds, even thousands of years.
The other one was when a U.S. satellite was knocked into by an inactive Russian satellite last year. Those two incidents together increase the amount of debris in the low Earth orbit by 60 percent.
RAZ: By 60 percent. So those two incidents just created this enormous amount of trash floating.
Ms. SAMSON: Right.
RAZ: Here's a kind of a naive question. I mean, space is space. There is a lot of space out there. Why wouldn't there be enough room for this trash and the satellites that are up there and the ones that will be launched?
Ms. SAMSON: Granted there is a lot of sky up there, the problem is that there are certain altitudes that are better for certain things. You know, we want to have communication satellites up at a certain orbit. You want to have Earth observation satellites added to a certain orbit. And so things tend to get left behind and things tend to get crowded.
RAZ: And a lot of these satellites floating, you know, on low Earth orbit aren't just sort of military, communication satellites or, you know, GPS satellites for military purposes, but they are satellites that provide consumers with services.
Ms. SAMSON: Right, exactly. We have your ATM activities, your electronic activities, your computer, your Internet. A lot of things have to do with space.
Ms. SAMSON: Television.
RAZ: You have DirectTV.
Ms. SAMSON: Exactly. There is an incident right now where a satellite is kind of out of control, but it's still broadcasting. And so there are concerns...
RAZ: Oh, really? Is this a U.S. satellite?
Ms. SAMSON: INTELSAT, Galaxy 15 and...
RAZ: But it's out of control?
Ms. SAMSON: It's out of control.
RAZ: Oh, my gosh.
Ms. SAMSON: So one of the concerns is not that it's going to brought into another satellite. The orbit that it's on, it seems to be okay. But there is concern that may or assume magnetically interfere with other satellite broadcast.
RAZ: Is there kind of like an air traffic control for low Earth orbit?
Ms. SAMSON: No, there isn't any kind of air traffic control for space. There has been discussions of that, but then you get into political considerations of who gets to be in charge of that.
RAZ: Right. I mean, so it's sort of like anarchy and anybody can launch a satellite, any country or any commercial entity, in theory, could launch something into the low Earth orbit.
Ms. SAMSON: There's nothing preventing you from doing so.
RAZ: What is the solution? How do you clean up the junk in orbit?
Ms. SAMSON: There's two ways: You can try to minimize debris creation or you can try and get rid of debris once it's already up there. There have studies done that say it doesn't take very much, you just need to remove maybe five big pieces of debris every year in order to stabilize the situation.
And so that's where you get some pretty far out ideas, you know, netting, tethering, you know, things like that. I wouldn't say it's science fiction. I think the technology is catching up with ideas. But it is extremely expensive. It's not against the laws of physics, but it's going to be difficult.
RAZ: That's Victoria Samson. She is with the Secure World Foundation. That's a space research group.
Ms. SAMSON: Thank you for having me.
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