ALEX COHEN, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY.
Fifty years ago today, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit. The Russians had already sent Sputnik 1 and 2 into space, so the successful American launch was a big victory for NASA. Back then, space was a pristine place, but no longer. Nowadays space is cluttered with dead satellites, abandoned spacecrafts, even a few golf balls. But one orbit's trash is another man's treasure. And that man is Thomas Dorman. He tracks space junk from his home in Horizon City, Texas, and he joins us now.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. THOMAS DORMAN: Glad to be here, ma'am.
COHEN: So explain exactly how this works. How do you find this celestial garbage and how do you look at it?
Mr. DORMAN: Well, I personally use computer programs that allow me to track these satellites. I get information from different source, such as the U.S. Space Command, and also public sites. So this allows me to know where these objects are and when they will pass over my house, and how high they will pass over my house, and sometimes the brightness of them.
COHEN: And I assume you're looking at these things through a telescope.
Mr. DORMAN: Sometimes, yes, sometimes. A lot of it's naked eye. Like this morning, I was up at 3 o'clock and I watched the paths of several spacecraft, one of those being the Hubble Space Telescope.
COHEN: That's pretty cool. So what does this stuff, what does the junk stuff look like when it's passing overhead?
Mr. DORMAN: Most of the time, even in small amateur telescopes, or naked eye, it'll just be a dot of light moving across the sky. Sometimes this junk can flash when it's visible to the naked eye. Also in telescopes it can obviously flash.
COHEN: And how does this stuff wind up there in the first place? I mean, do you astronauts throw stuff out the window? I mean, it seems a little odd.
Mr. DORMAN: Yeah, well, there's stuff been lost by the astronauts who have worked on the International Space Station. A lot of it is left behind by launching spacecraft into orbit. And also there's been explosions on orbit that has left space junk out there.
But there is a good effort by the international community to try to limit it now because they've realized the problems it causes now and in the future for spacecraft and operations on orbit around the Earth.
COHEN: And what kind of problems do they cause?
Mr. DORMAN: Well, they can cause impacts such as - I think it was last year one of the space shuttles received an impact on one of the radiators. And it did cause a little bit of damage. And they are a danger to astronauts doing repairs, such as the space walk that happened yesterday.
COHEN: Mr. Dorman, what goes up must eventually, I would think, come down. Do you have any items of space junk that have landed here on Earth?
Mr. DORMAN: You have to realize that there's laws - international laws - that govern even space junk, and that there's some return to the country of origin. If it can be determined where it came from, you got to give it back.
COHEN: Thomas Dorman, watcher of space junk, spoke with us from Horizon City, Texas. Thanks for talking with us.
Mr. DORMAN: No problem, ma'am. Hope I helped you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.