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Future Job: Galactic Garbage Collector?

November 29th, 2016

Space debris in Low Earth Orbit. Image courtesy: NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office

You probably haven’t given much thought (or even known) about the garbage in space, floating just above Earth. But it’s there. And there’s a lot more of it than you’d think.

NASA estimates that there are about 500,000 (half a million!) pieces of debris (pronounced: deb-ree) larger than a marble orbiting Earth, about 22,000 pieces the size of a softball, and possibly over 100 million tiny fragments just 1 millimeter across! The white dots in the image above represent space junk.

Space junk is basically stuff left over from satellites and rocket launches, all man-made things. The problem in addition to there being a lot of it is that each piece travels at about 17,500 miles per hour!

As if that’s not enough, when a piece of space junk collides with another as sometimes happens, they break apart making hundreds more smaller pieces … creating even more space junk whipping around at high speeds.

Because there’s so much and always more being made, it’s created hazards for the working satellites and even spacecraft, including the International Space Station. There was a close call in 2011 and the astronauts had to take shelter in their escape capsules until it thankfully passed without hitting anything. HTE did a story on it and you can read about it here .

A different time, a  small paint chip hit the windshield of the space shuttle Challenger  at 20,000+ miles per hour and made a dent serious enough that the windshield had to be replaced when it landed back on Earth! Yikes!

So it’s not just bad to have so much garbage … it can be dangerous too.

So what do we do?

NASA and other space agencies actually keep track of a lot of the bigger pieces of space garbage and are able to have spacecraft and satellites avoid them for the most part. But that’s not exactly a solution. And NASA, according to its website , isn’t currently actively looking for ways to pick up the trash. They’re more focused on getting to Mars.

This isn’t a totally new problem, but it’s becoming a more urgent one. Even the United Nations has rules for handling space garbage .  Over the years, people have come up with ideas including laser brooms, tethers , a net that gobbles up garbage like PAC-MAN , a radar and satellite system developed by a 15-year old  … and now there’s another new idea by a Japanese team called  Space Sweepers . Their method? Using good old-fashioned glue! Ok, it’s more like amazing revolutionary space glue, but it’s still glue. 

After getting satellites into space to get a better understanding of the space junk situation, the Space Sweepers hope to launch a lightweight satellite in 2018 that has a super sticky part the size of a dinner plate. The plan is for the space junk to get stuck to it and then be hauled out of orbit. You can check out their website, Astrocale , here.

In the meantime, an art project called Adrift is also exploring space debris (including a spatula lost in space!). You can watch their mini-documentary below or visit their website here .

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