Space debris
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Space Debris. By: Ashley Barrera Astronomy 133 Spring 2009. A Greener Planet?. Every year, in almost every country around the world, people do their part to clean up our Earth.

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Space Debris

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Space debris

Space Debris

By: Ashley Barrera

Astronomy 133

Spring 2009

A greener planet

A Greener Planet?

  • Every year, in almost every country around the world, people do their part to clean up our Earth.

  • Recycling programs are everywhere, and whether our involvement is large or small, we all contribute to help make our home a better place.

  • But what about our Earth’s home? Who is looking out for outer space?

What is out there

What is out there?

  • Space debris is also called orbital debris, space junk and space waste.

  • It is the man-made objects that are in orbit around the Earth that no longer serve any useful purpose to us.

  • They can include anything from entire used rocket stages and defunct satellites to explosion fragments, paint flakes, dust, slag from solid rocket motors, coolant released by RORSAT nuclear powered satellites, deliberate insertion of small needles, and other small particles from equipment.

  • Currently, 200 new objects are added annually.

Interesting facts

In 1999 it was estimated there were 4 million pounds of space junk in low-Earth orbit, made up of 110,000 objects larger than 1 cm. -- large enough to damage a satellite or space-based telescope.

For example, a tiny speck of paint from a satellite dug a pit in a space shuttle window nearly a 1/4 in. wide.

In 1996, only 2 years after it went up, part of a Pegasus rocket made the most space debris by a spacecraft's destruction. It created a cloud of 300,000 pieces bigger than 4 mm, 700 of which were big enough to be catalogued. This event doubled the Hubble Space Telescope’s collision risk.

Interesting Facts

More facts

In 1958, America’s 2nd satellite, Vanguard I went into orbit. It worked for only 6 years, but is still up in space.

The “most dangerous garment in history” orbited with a speed of 28,000 km/h for one month in 1965. Edward White, a Gemini 4 astronaut, lost this glove during the 1st American space walk.

The Mir space station sent more than 200 objects into space in its first 10 years of operation. Most of them were garbage bags.

In June 2000, the total number of trackable space objects included 90 space probes, 2,671 satellites and 6,096 pieces of space junk.

More Facts…

Why is this bad

Why is this bad?

  • “Sandblasting” or erosive damage, can occur on objects that are both being used and unused when they come into contact with clouds of very small particles in space.

  • Collisions can be highly damaging to functioning satellites due to the extremely high orbital velocities at which this “junk” travels. Some debris has been recorded moving along at 17,500 mph!Collisions are also known to produce even more space debris.

    • This is called the Kessler Syndrome.

The kessler syndrome

The Kessler Syndrome

  • In 1978, a NASA scientist named Donald J. Kessler theorized that the volume of space debris in low earth orbits is so high that objects in orbit are frequently struck by debris.

  • Unfortunately, this multiplies the amount of debris and amplifies the possibility of further impacts.

  • Ultimately, the vast amount of debris in orbit could make space exploration, and even the use of satellites, impossible.

Gabbard diagrams

Gabbard Diagrams

  • We can use scatter plots to study space debris clouds from satellite breakups.

  • Perigee and apogee altitudes of the individual debris fragments after a collision are plotted with respect to the orbital period of each fragment.

  • By plotting these graphs, we can estimate an object’s direction and point of impact.

Examples of debris

Examples of Debris

Collisions in space

Collisions in Space

  • This photo shows the antenna dish of the Hubble Space Telescope which was completely penetrated by space debris.

Re entry


  • On 21 January 2001, a Delta 2 third stage, known as a PAM-D reentered the atmosphere over the Middle East. The titanium motor casing of the PAM-D, weighed about 70 kg, & landed in Saudi Arabia about 240 km from the capital of Riyadh.

  • Parts from the second stage of PAM-D fell in Georgetown & Seguine, TX the following day.

Possible solutions

Possible Solutions

Alternate orbit

Alternate Orbit

  • Sometimes it would require too much fuel to de-orbit a satellite from its path. In these cases, it can also be brought to an orbit where atmospheric drag would cause it to de-orbit after some years.

  • This has been done! The French Spot-1 satellite, brought its time to atmospheric reentry down from an estimated 200 years to about 15 years by lowering its perigee from 830 km to about 550 km.

Terminator tether

Terminator Tether

  • When a satellite has completed its task, it could be brought back down to Earth where it could be properly disposed of and/or recycled.

  • This could be done with the use of a "terminator tether," also called an “electro-dynamic tether” that is rolled out, and slows down the spacecraft.

Other debris

Other Debris?

  • Unfortunately, many other ideas are either too expensive or unrealistic. These involve pulling space debris back into Earth's atmosphere by:

    • Using laser brooms to vaporize or nudge particles into rapidly-decaying orbits also called the Orion Project

    • Huge aero-gel blobs to absorb impacting junk and eventually fall out of orbit with them trapped inside

  • Instead, NASA currently focuses on preventing collisions by keeping track of the larger debris, and preventing more debris from littering space.

Counter claims




  • Major Michael Birmingham of the U.S. Space Command reported that 91 objects fell back into the atmosphere in all of 1998, and 69 in 1997.

  • "Most objects that re-enter the Earth's atmosphere burn-up or re-enter over water," Birmingham said, noting that nearly three-quarters of the planet is wet and a great majority of what's dry is uninhabited.

  • "Since the space surveillance mission began, almost 17,000 objects that we track re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. Catastrophic re-entries are rare and the exception."

Armored devices

Armored Devices

  • "We get hit regularly on the shuttle," said Joseph Loftus, assistant director of engineering for NASA's Space and Life Science Directorate. "We've replaced more than 80 shuttle windows because of debris impacts."

  • Because of small collisions, some spacecraft, like the International Space Station, are now armored to mitigate damage from space debris.

What do you think

What Do YOU Think?

  • Is space debris just another over hyped scientific issue, or could this really become a larger problem in the future?

  • Should we leave it all up there, or take the time and money to bring it down?

  • If you feel strongly, you can contact:

    • Public Communications Office NASA HeadquartersSuite 5K39Washington, DC 20546-0001

    • Or your local Congressman/Congresswoman







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