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Space: Dodging Celestial Garbage

5 minute read
Jamie Murphy

Right now, there are 3,800 pieces of junk circling the earth

To the minstrels of medieval Europe, the moon was a kind of celestial junkyard. They consigned to lunar banishment a dolorous assortment of such earthly intangibles as broken vows, fruitless tears and misspent time. Today the moon is a repository of more substantial material: it harbors a pile of gear, left behind by Apollo astronauts, that includes one moon buggy, $5 million worth of camera equipment and two golf balls that Alan Shepard whacked with a makeshift six iron to unplayable lies in a boulder-strewed valley. Still, this lunar refuse is paltry by comparison with all of the man-made debris now sailing noiselessly through the cosmos.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is responsible for providing early warning against aerial attacks, estimates that some 3,800 pieces of junk are currently circling the earth.* Total weight of this space-age garbage: six tons. Two-thirds of the nuts, bolts, oxygen cylinders, broken solar panels, dead satellites, spent rocket boosters and other litter is in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles from the earth’s surface, where it will remain indefinitely. One-third of the circling scrap is in low earth orbit, only 120 to 300 miles overhead.

Most of the space garbage consists of nonfunctioning satellites and space probes launched from earth. There is also fragmentary junk, resulting from mid-space collisions between spacecraft and meteorites. Astronauts have dumped sewage, food containers and spent oxygen cylinders overboard. On rare occasions, space walkers have accidentally dropped objects in space. Astronaut Ed White lost a shiny white glove during the Gemini 4 flight in 1965. George (“Pinky”) Nelson fumbled away two tiny screws while repairing the Solar Maximum Mission satellite during the shuttle flight last month.

Objects in low earth orbit circle freely until the slow wear of molecular friction and the force of gravity cause them to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere at a blazing 18,000 m.p.h. and subsequently burn up. That was the fate of the first man-made satellite, the 184-lb. Soviet Sputnik 1, which incinerated in the heat of re-entry three months after its historic launching on Oct. 4,1957.

Since then 9,695 man-made objects have fallen from orbit, but the number that survived the atmospheric plunge to hit the earth is unknown. Shards have landed on more than a dozen nations, including Zambia, Finland and Nepal. As early as 1961, Premier Fidel Castro indignantly charged that a re-entering chunk of a U.S. spacecraft had struck and killed a Cuban cow. A year later, a 21-lb. metal cylinder landed at the intersection of North 8th and Park streets in Manitowoc, Wis. The debris was later identified by the U.S. Air Force as a fragment of Soviet Sputnik 4, launched two years earlier. It was the first certified piece of space litter to hit the U.S. In 1963 a charred metal sphere with a 15-in. diameter turned up on a sheep ranch in New South Wales. It was part of a Soviet space vehicle, but the U.S.S.R. never claimed it.

The probability of space rubble hitting a person is so small that Lloyds of London considers the odds impossible to calculate. Nevertheless, in 1969 a Japanese freighter in the Sea of Japan was struck by wreckage from a Soviet spacecraft. There were reports from Tokyo that five crewmen were seriously injured. They remain the first and only victims of debris from space.

Perhaps the two most celebrated space-trash incidents took place within the past decade. In 1978 Cosmos 954, a five-ton, nuclear-powered Soviet ocean-surveillance satellite, lost altitude; its remains were scattered over hundreds of square miles of subArctic Canada. The following year, NASA’S 77½-ton Skylab broadcast a trail of wreckage across the Indian Ocean and Australian outback. There had been plenty of advance warning that both craft were in trouble, although scientists could not accurately predict where the debris would land.

More serious than the danger to earth is the threat that space debris poses for satellites and other extraterrestrial conveyances. Shuttle 10 returned to earth last February with a pea-size pit in its windshield. NASA has reserved judgment on the cause, but the dent is probably the result of a micrometeorite strike or a fragment of titanium, beryllium or other space-age material striking the craft.

Orbital space has become so crowded in recent years that launched objects frequently pass within 30 miles of one another. NASA intentionally sent off the most recent shuttle at the earliest possible opportunity in April to make sure that the orbiter would fly no closer than 130 miles to Soviet space station Salyut 7. Said a Kennedy Space Center launch technician: “We have had a kind of unwritten agreement with the Soviets to keep our launch vehicles at least 200 kilometers away from their birds.”

Despite measures taken to prevent accidents, two U.S. satellites collided in 1965, scattering a cloud of debris in their wake. Evidence suggests that in 1981 Cosmos 1275, a Soviet navigation satellite, was blown into 135 fragments by an errant piece of space debris. In 1975 a metallic U.S. communications balloon deflated after colliding with a junk fragment.

The success of last month’s Solar Max satellite repair mission provided a potential solution to some of the orbital traffic headaches. NASA has suggested that on future missions space-walking astronauts may be able to collect some of the space junk with grapples, rope it in line like freight cars, attach the tethers to rockets and propel the material either into the earth’s oceans or to special garbage dumps in space. One possible site: the moon. “Who knows?” says one NASA official. “A junkyard out there could be a good place for us to find spare parts one day.”

—By Jamie Murphy. Reported by Jerry Hamtifin/Washington

—Even that count is incomplete, since NORAD did not include objects that have escaped the earth’s gravitational clutches, such as the abandoned Viking lander on Mars or Pioneer 10, which last June flew beyond the outermost planet of the solar system.

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