Hey everybody! Cara Santa Maria here.
Last week, the defunct Russian space craft, Phobos-Grunt, crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The probe was meant to make the long trek to Mars, where it would study Phobos, one of Mars's two moons, but it never made it out of the Earth's atmosphere. Instead, it spent the last two months circling us, eventually being pulled out of orbit by trusty gravity.
You may think it's a bad thing that huge chunks of metal periodically fall out of the sky (and I mean huge: Phobos-Grunt weighed almost 15 tons), but have you ever thought about the ones that don't come crashing down to Earth? That's right. There's an ever-growing amount of space junk in constant orbit around our little planet.
NASA tracks every single loose object that's larger than 4 centimeters in diameter. They have to. In the vacuum of space, these little projectiles can move at over 20,000 miles per hour. At those speeds, even a tiny fleck of paint can put a crater in the side of an orbiting satellite, and currently, NASA has no way to track these itty bitty accidental missiles.
In fact, since the launch of Sputnik over 50 years ago, space junk has been accumulating. Two of the most famous pieces of space waste are a glove that floated away from the Gemini 4 crew during the first ever US spacewalk, and the camera lost by astronaut Michael Collins during the Gemini 10 mission. There is also a fair amount of space dust, referred to as micrometeorites, that are not man-made.
As we speak, there are around 1,000 active satellites and 15,000 pieces of large debris orbiting our planet. And that's just the ones that have been catalogued by the US government. NASA estimates that the cloud of junk surrounding Earth contains more than 20,000 pieces that are bigger than a softball and over half a million that are larger than a marble. In fact, just last year, the National Research Council said that orbital trash has reached a tipping point. The more stuff floating out there in orbit, the higher the chances of it crashing into each other and making a whole new mess of space trash. Soon enough, there will be too much waste for a satellite or space station to safely stay in orbit!
As if that thought weren't frightening enough, when NASA's chief Orbital Debris scientist Nick Johnson spoke with reporters at SPACE.com about cleaning up the debris, he said: "there is no urgency, thankfully. We can easily wait 10 or 15 years before we start doing anything. We have time to do this right."
Now, I understand the need to come up with a solid, cost-effective plan to fly into space and clean up all the crap that's orbiting us. But 10 to 15 years? Is that really necessary? And isn't this the kind of attitude that got us into this mess--literally--in the first place? Why not launch a satellite into low-earth orbit with no contingency for taking it down? I don't live in outer space! We'll figure it all out later.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am a huge supporter of space exploration. And I don't know what I'd do without all of my fancy gadgets that rely on satellite transmissions. But half the reason we want to eventually go to another planet is because we are rapidly making this one uninhabitable. I think it's high time that sustainability and a reverence toward nature (including the nature of space) factor into our decision-making.
How do you propose we deal with our ever-growing space junk problem? I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
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