Progress comes with a price. And as we continue to advance our civilization by further exploring space, it comes with it the problem of space junk that might one day jeopardize future missions if neglected. Fears that the Long March 5B Chinese rocket could hit a plane or populated area in flight may have played down, but that doesn’t mean there’s no shortage of space debris in orbit.
US military experts expected the booster stage to come down last week, but have warned it’s difficult to predict when and where it will land and how much havoc it will bring upon entry. Eventually, it plunged back to Earth and most of it burnt entirely upon reentry – most but not all.
The Chinese government, as expected, has played it calmy by saying its probability of causing harm to people and aviation is extremely low.
But this Chinese rocket situation is just a representation of a much larger issue of space pollution and space sustainability, especially as space increasingly becomes the target of not only the government but also the private sector. Under space law, those players who are putting their satellites in Earth’s orbit are under the legal responsibility of their host nations.
The Chinese Rocket Is Just A Part Of A Larger Issue
Add to that the 9,300 tons of space junk that’s currently in orbit, which just worsens the issue of debris pollution and space collision.
Last month, orbiting astronauts were warned to put back their spacesuits and brace themselves because a chunk of space debris could strike their capsule. Previously, a piece of debris just the size of a fingernail struck the space shuttle’s windshield, piercing two layers of glass.
According to professor Joanne Gabrynowicz, space debris has been known for quite some time already. And as more players, other than the Chinese and the ESA (European Space Agency), are starting to get interested in exploring space, it gets more and more complicated.
Experts have repeatedly voiced their worries about space-related collisions since day one. Way back in 2009, two satellites – Kosmos-2251 and Iridium 33 – collided at approximately 42,000kph over Siberia, shattering both in thousands of pieces. To further stress its importance, the ESA hosted a major conference on the matter later on.
Gabrynowicz added that there’s a lot of stuff put into low Earth orbit, increasing the chances of one colliding with another.
Meanwhile, Jonathan McDowell believes that the Chinese are just negligent since they have every reason to know that the Long March 5B would become uncontrollable. What happened was that China said it will probably fall in the ocean with a very low risk of hitting civilization. Looking back, they said the core of the same Chinese rocket would probably fall in the ocean, except that it didn’t. The remaining chunks rained down on a village on Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Thankfully, no injuries were reported.
Cleaning Space Junk Is Possible
What happened to the Long March 2B could refocus the attention on the issue of space sustainability and provide opportunities to firms like the UK-based Astroscale that aims to tackle the problem with commercial junk-collecting services.
According to a source, 6,900 of 11,370 satellites are still orbiting the Earth, with about 4,000 of those online. But the number of space debris being tracked stands at 28,160. The discrepancy is caused by more than 650 collisions, break-ups, and other anomalous events resulting in fragmentation.
Astroscale’s “ELSA-d” is currently experimenting in low Earth orbit to show that picking up space debris is indeed possible. It’s a huge challenge, especially if the target is tumbling or spinning. The experiment is done by capturing a test drone using a magnet; someday, larger targets might require a more “effective” approach, like a robotic arm.
John Auburn, its managing director, said that the real problem isn’t the big pieces of chunks that are creating headlines. Rather, it’s the small ones. He added that one centimeter of fragment can be devastating enough if it hits one’s spacecraft. That’s why governments must issue license requirements that old and broken stuff should be brought back down.
Will Space Junk Be A Serious Issue In Near Future?
Yes, it’s more likely to be. Several companies are planning to create mega-constellations to help beam the Internet down to Earth. Amazon and SpaceX plan to launch thousands, if not hundreds, of satellites to achieve global internet coverage wherever one may be. If successful, an additional 50,000 satellites will be put into orbit. This would mean more chances of colliding with each other, so more collision advance maneuvers will need to be done.
In September 2019, the ESA performed the first satellite maneuver to avoid an oncoming mega constellation, which is unusual to have to avoid active satellites.
By making sure that satellites will have to be removed in a reasonable amount of time once they get decommissioned would mean that we could mitigate the space junk problem in the future.
Earth’s orbit allows us to check the weather, do surveillance, study the planet, send comms, and the like. That’s why it’s important to handle the problem as early as now, to allow future generations to enjoy its benefits as well.
Chinese Rocket And Other Space Junk – Does It Affect Our Current Exploration Efforts?
Fortunately, space junk is yet to affect our current exploration efforts. However, satellites in orbit are more likely to experience its threats. Active satellites have to move out of the way to avoid colliding with space junk and blowing up – creating more chunks.
Every year, the majority of the satellites have to perform collision avoidance maneuvers including the ISS, just to survive another day. Thankfully, major collisions are quite rare, with the latest one being in 2009. And when it comes to exploring space beyond Earth’s orbit, such debris won’t cause any more harm.
What Happens When Space Debris Crashes Back On Earth?
Not only space junk are harmful to active satellites, but it can also be life-threatening if they plummet back to Earth, hitting a random major city.
How long space debris takes to fall back at Earth depends on some factors, such as latitude and altitude, among others. Debris below 600km usually takes a couple of years before reentering the atmosphere.
These components and other modules are likely to hit bodies of water, as oceans make up 70% of the Earth’s total surface.
A source says that data recorded over a period of 50 years revealed that at least one piece of space debris falls back to Earth each day, although no confirmed deaths caused by direct hits have been recorded yet.
However, it can still cause some serious damage – all depending on where it lands.