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Sierra Daily

Sep 10, 2013

Why Space Junk Threatens Earth Conservation

Space junk litters low Earth orbit
A digital representation of lower orbit debris, from the upcoming documentary “Space Junk 3D.”

This month, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will shut down its “radar fence,” which tracks space trash. They cite federal government sequestration as the reason, and lament having to close the fence. Wait, there’s space trash? And it’s important enough to be tracked by the Air Force? Yup.

From flakes of paint shaken off of rockets to the broken up bodies of abandoned satellites, humankind’s machine waste now clutters low-Earth-orbit, the 2000 kilometers (1243 miles) above Earth’s surface. This important zone hosts most of our satellites, including those crucial for conservation and environmental management: the Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites, launched by NASA and used by the Forest Service and environmental science academics. One data collector is MODIS, an imagery sensor that flies on the Terra and Aqua satellites.

“We use MODIS data for fire detection,” says Brad Quayle, a remote sensing specialist for the Forest Service. “We also monitor tree health to keep track of pests and pathogens.” For example, Quayle's team can remotely detect a slight bark beetle outbreak through changes in satellite images of forests. 

Without low-Earth-orbit satellites, environmental science would be sent back to the Stone Age, or at least the '60s. Yet Earth’s spacefaring nations have polluted what was once seen as a public good: the "limitless" vastness of space. It took only two acts of human negligence to create one third of the space debris currently tracked by NASA. In 2007 China intentionally smashed a weather satellite, and in 2009 American and Russian communications satellites collided accidentally (see a video reenactment below). Both events scattered thousands of pieces of junk into orbit. The remaining pieces accumulated from rocket stages of human spacecraft, dead satellites left in orbit, and other miscellaneous trash. 

Debris cause collisions, which cause more debris, leading to a scenario called the “Kessler Syndrome.” With exponentially multiplying debris fields, so much cosmic trash could litter low-Earth-orbit that launching new spacecraft will be extremely difficult. The original author of the scenario, retired NASA scientist Don Kessler, talks about this more in his new film Space Junk 3D. The film also explores possible solutions to the trash problem, such as gathering the garbage with giant nets, or sending robots to pull defunct satellites out of orbit. Increasingly, the "limitless" vastness of lower orbit is being recognized as a finite and congested area.

“We’re very concerned," says Quayle, the remote sensing specialist, "about the satellite sources we use.” Though NASA is responsible for protecting the satellites, they update Quayle’s team. “They take actions and conduct maneuvers [to avoid collisions].”

RT News reports that until congress authorizes funds for a new radar fence, NASA will be “left in the dark.” It’ll be much harder for NASA to navigate unseen space debris. However, if Kessler’s theory holds true, the junk might be too dense to dodge.

 

A scene in Space Junk 3D depicts the crash between American and Russian satellites that created massive space debris. 

--Images courtesy of Melrae Pictures, LLC., from Space Junk 3D, which plays in select theaters now and will be available on DVD later this month.

--Cedar Attanasio is an editorial intern at Sierra. He has blogged for The National Geographic Daily NewsPeter Greenberg Worldwide, and others. A graduate of Middlebury College and a 2012 K. Davis Language Fellow, Cedar is a perpetual student of Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and all things Latin America. You can follow him on twitter @cedarattanasio.

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