Atom Wave: The Junk Cascades

Atom Wave

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Junk Cascades

Orbiting Junk, Once a Nuisance, Is Now a Threat

On January 11 of this year, China successfully destroyed one of their old weather satellites in a test. While the test itself was unremarkable, its consequences may not be. The explosion of the satellite spread over a thousand of its parts and pieces across the sky into a ring that now threatens many near earth satellites including the International Space Station.
The threat of space debris is not a new innovation, and has been in development since the launch of the space program. With zero incentive to maintain hygiene, governments and corporations have long chosen to abandon everything from spent rocket stages to dead satellites in orbit. Since many more of these objects are sent aloft than ever return, the problem has only accumulated.
Since 1978, Dr. Kessler and Burtan Cour-Palais have been saying that an orbital cascade is inevitable. While the results have so far been disappointing, the Chinese test may change that! Once the debris achieves critical density, it will runaway in a chain reaction of destruction that will amount to the end of spaceflight. Space is already a shooting gallery as it is, and satellites must already be increasingly armored to survive it as it is.
While no practical solution exists to molest existing junk, prevention is the sure method towards thwarting that cool cascade just above the horizon. All that governments and corporations need to do is take efforts to bring down old satellites and rockets before they become a hazard.


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