It’s getting more and more crowded around Earth — about six months ago there were 22,000 manmade objects counted in orbit around our planet. Then, in October, the upper stage of a Russian rocket disintegrated in low Earth orbit.
Add another 500 bits and pieces to the count.
The counting is being done by the Joint Space Operations Center, which has the task of cataloging and tracking any piece of debris 10 centimeters or larger circling near-Earth. Or, more importantly, near any of the still-functioning satellites also orbiting Earth.
In the microgravity of space, even the smallest of objects can reach speeds capable of inflicting big damage to extremely expensive equipment.
Expensive equipment, that is, like the International Space Station (ISS). It’s the job of the joint center, operated by U.S., Canadian, British, and Australian personnel at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, to help protect the ISS and other important satellites from becoming part of a growing debris field. They do this by tracking each piece of debris with other expensive equipment in Earth’s orbit, as well as with ground tracking stations. The aim is to predict the trajectory of the volatile junk pieces so that controllable things, like the ISS, can evade impact.
The need for such tracking — often called situational space awareness — will become increasingly important in the coming years, say joint center officials and others, as more nations gain the ability to launch objects into space.
Consider that for almost all of human history, space was untouchable. Then, in 1957, the Soviets accomplished something astounding: they sent a satellite named Sputnik into orbit.
In the 55 years since that launch, there have been an estimated 38,000 man-made objects somewhere in Earth’s orbit, according to the U.S. Strategic Command. And those are the only ones that we could find to count.
Of the 22,000 countable bits and pieces — or rather 22,000 plus — only about 5 percent are estimated to be working payloads or satellites. The rest are just, well, junk.
Controlling all that junk will require international cooperation. And getting every nation to cooperate could be harder than moving the Space Station. Five years ago, China blew up one of its own weather satellites using a ground-launched missile. Why? Mostly just to show that it could.
If that’s not enough, North Korea announced recently that it had launched its own satellite. While it apparently reached orbit, it never reached operational status, according to several media reports. Good new is, it’s still in one piece. So that’s 22,000 bits and pieces plus 500 or so, plus one.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.