Late in the evening on January 28th, 2012 the rocket thrusters on the International Space Station roared to life. It was an emergency action, an evasive maneuver to protect the $100 billion floating laboratory from a collision that could have easily dislodged one of the delicate solar panels or torn apart one of the life-sustaining pressure locks. The cause of this maneuvering was not a competing satellite, shuttle, asteroid or alien craft but space junk left over from the destruction of a satellite 5 years earlier. Anyone familiar with the work of Donald Kessler and the Syndrome that bears his name was not surprised. For more than three decades advocates of the Kessler Syndrome have been preaching about the growing problem of leftover debris from satellites, command modules and discarded space craft: space trash.
The space trash problem has grown so large that if left unsolved it could render low-orbit flight impossible according to a report by the National Research Council. Which wouldn’t be much of problem if cellphones, hurricane and weather tracking systems, GPS and Television providers did not heavily depend on the low-orbit flight of satellites to deliver the utilities widely adopted by much of the modern world. Moving around satellites and craft is not cheap, just ask anyone in the now defunct Shuttle program at NASA how much rocket fuel costs, even a few seconds of use by the thursters on the ISS.
The ISS will likewise see a dramatic increase in evasive maneuvering if this problem is not remedied in the near future. With a fragile solar array that powers life support systems, myriad scientific equipment and an average speed of 17,500 mph, any collision with space debris poses a significant threat to the continued operating ability of the ISS and the safety of those aboard.
Fortunately, many experts, including Kessler, believe that cleaning up a number of large pieces of space debris will have a dramatic impact on the overall amount of objects in orbit as larger pieces tend to break up into thousands of smaller particles that can still cause problems for satellite and other craft. We must take care of the tiny messes we leave behind before we create an even bigger problem that we don’t have the means to solve.
Jason Taetsch is a freelance content writer with experience in tech writing, blogs, travel writing, pop culture and a range of promotional materials. Jason blogs via Contently.com.