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Dear readers,

History remembers October 4, 1957, a lot better than it remembers January 4, 1958—though in recent weeks, the second date is coming to loom larger than the first. October 4, 1957, was the day the Soviet Union Launched Sputnik—the world’s first satellite—an achievement that heralded the start of the space age.

“RUSS SATELLITE CIRCLING EARTH,” shouted the Los Angeles Times in a banner headline.

“REDS FIRE ‘MOON’ INTO SKY,” answered the Chicago Daily Tribune.

There was no such hyperventilating, however, three months later to the day, when the little 84 kg (184 lb.), beachball-sized satellite, having slowly lost altitude due to atmospheric drag, fell from the sky, burning up like a small meteor in the fiery heat of reentry. With that, the world’s first satellite became the world’s first piece of plummeting space debris. It would by no means be the last.

Ever since 1957, a massive belt of cosmic junk—defunct satellites, spent rocket parts, bolts, scraps, paint chips, and more—has been accumulating around the Earth. According to figures from the European Space Agency (ESA), there are at least 36,500 space debris objects greater than 10 cm (4 in.) across; 1 million objects ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm (0.4 in to 4 in); and a whopping 130 million measuring 1 mm (.04 in) to 1 cm (0.4 in). Not only does all this cosmic rubbish pose a collision risk to both crewed and uncrewed spacecraft, it also menaces the 7.7 billion of us on the planet below.

Just last weekend, on July 30, the 25-ton core stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket fell from the sky in an uncontrolled plunge. Up to 40% of the giant booster survived the heat of reentry, and despite Chinese assurances that the mass of spent metal posed little or no danger to population centers, chunks of debris rained down on Borneo.

No casualties or property damage reported, but debris is near villages and a few hundred metres either way could have been a different story,” tweeted astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The incident was especially troubling because most national space programs and private sector aerospace companies design their rockets to have enough maneuvering fuel left aboard to land at planned spots in the ocean or on vast stretches of unpopulated steppe or desert. The Long March 5B has no such guidance system.

But it’s not only China that's been a menace recently. As The Guardian reports, a 10-foot tall, monolith-like piece of debris that landed on an Australian farm last month has now been identified as belonging to SpaceX. One of the panels on the piece of junk, examined by Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, bore a serial number that identified its origin.

NASA initially stayed mum on the SpaceX incident, with Administrator Bill Nelson reserving his fire for China. “The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” he said in an official statement. “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance.” In the genteel parlance of diplomat-speak, that counts as a dressing-down.

But as news outlets reported this week, NASA has now said that SpaceX confirmed the object was "likely the remaining part of the jettisoned trunk segment from a Dragon spacecraft used during the Crew-1 mission’s return from the International Space Station in May last year," as the New York Times wrote. A statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, reported by CNN, explained the trunk segment "typically burns up in the atmosphere." However, "in this case, it likely remained in orbit for more than one year and some pieces of trunk hardware survived to reach the Earth."

Ultimately, finger-wagging won’t solve anything. With national space programs around the world continuing to launch, and with the private sector increasingly getting into the game, the space debris problem is only going to get worse. This week, the Atlantic Council think tank issued a report calling on the world to come up with an international framework for orbital traffic management—reporting and sharing information on launches and reentries, and developing ways to collect and clear some of the junk from orbit.

“Achieving security, economic, and societal objectives in the 21st century hinges on free and open access to outer space,” the authors of the report wrote. “Now is the time to act and protect a future of security and prosperity in space.”


IMAGE OF THE WEEK
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

In its latest dazzler, the James Webb Space Telescope captured this image of the Cartwheel galaxy, 500 million light years from Earth. The picture reveals new details about star formation and the galaxy's central black hole.


WHAT WE'RE READING...

Cosmic Ambassadors

First come the warriors, then come the diplomats. It was on December 20, 2019, that the National Defense Authorization Act was signed, creating the U.S. Space Force—the first new branch of the military to come into being in the 72 years since the Air Force was established. The Space Force’s remit was not just to protect U.S. assets, like spy satellites, from attacks by hostile nations; it was also to prepare the nation for the possibility that space might one day become a war-fighting domain. The Space Force’s motto? “Semper Supra,” or “Always Above.”

And on the ground too, it seems. As Air Force Magazine reports this week, the new branch of the military is looking to exercise soft power as well, planning to establish the position of space attaché in select countries around the world. According to Space Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Brooke Davis, the new program will “develop a cadre of space professionals focused on strengthening allies and partner relationships.”

The biggest decision the Space Force faces at the moment is how widespread the diplomatic corps will be and which host countries will get an attaché. The best bet for the first country to welcome one of the new diplomats is the U.K., which already has a space force of its own, and has the third highest number of satellites in space, trailing only the U.S. and China. Other countries considered likely to be home to a space attaché include Germany, Italy, France, Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Denmark, and India—all of which have extensive space assets that could benefit from partnering with the U.S.

Read more here.

Webb Spots Farthest Star Ever

The world was gobsmacked last month when the James Webb Space Telescope released its first clutch of images, showing nebulae, galactic clusters, binary stars, and more. Things have quieted down a bit since, as the telescope team begins to set about the 25 or so years of work the Webb is thought to have ahead of it. But, as Space.com reports, the telescope made news again this week, when astronomers announced that it had spotted the farthest individual star ever seen.

Named Earendel, after a character in Lord of the Rings, the star is located 12.9 billion light years from Earth, which means that Webb saw it as it looked 12.9 billion years ago, not as it looks today. The star would not have been visible at all if it weren’t for the phenomenon of gravitational lensing—the ability of large foreground objects like galaxies to bend and magnify the light streaming in from behind them.

Though sighting Earendel was an accomplishment, Webb does not get credit for discovering it. That distinction goes to its much older brother, the Hubble Space Telescope, which first spotted Earendel this past March. For Webb then, the sighting was less important for its historic value than for its engineering value—one more sign that the brand new, $10 billion observatory is living up to its sharp-eyed billing.

Read more here.

Polaris Dawn Set to Fly

Some people just can’t get enough of space. Take, for example, Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of the online payment company Shift4, who bankrolled and commanded the Inspiration4 mission aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft last September—the first time an all-civilian crew of non-professional astronauts took to space. Only five months after that, in February 2022, Isaacman announced he’d be going back to space—up to three more times—as part of a series of missions called Polaris, that has him again partnering with SpaceX.

The lingering question was when the missions would fly, and as SpaceNews reports, the answer is: soon. Appearing at an air show in Oshkosh, Wis., late last week, Isaacman announced that the first mission, known as Polaris Dawn, would fly sometime in December. Once again commanding a crew of four, Isaacman plans for the flight to break an orbital altitude record, set by Gemini 11 in 1966, climbing to more than 1,400 km (870 mi.) The mission will also test communications with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and, most news-making, will also feature the first private spacewalk by one of the four crew members.

The second of the Polaris missions—date still uncertain—will again use a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The third and final one will be the first crewed flight of SpaceX’s massive new Starship spacecraft.

Volcanic Geyser

You’d think that creating a massive tsunami and setting off a sonic boom that circled the Earth twice would be enough for any single volcano. But not the gigantic Tongan volcano, which erupted on January 15, 2022. As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) now reports, astronomers using an instrument on the space agency’s Aura satellite have also discovered that the Tongan blast injected vastly more water into the stratosphere than any volcano measured before—water that will linger for years and contribute to the planet’s slowly rising temperature—though NASA is sanguine about the overall impact. "Water vapor from the eruption may have a small, temporary warming effect, since water vapor traps heat," the JPL release said. "The effect would dissipate when the extra water vapor cycles out of the stratosphere and would not be enough to noticeably exacerbate climate change effects."

Still, the Tongan blast was an outlier. Volcanoes typically eject gas, dust, and ash into the atmosphere—with only trace amounts of water—which actually cool the planet slightly by reflecting sunlight back into space. The Tongan volcano’s caldera, or basin, was deep enough—150 m (492 ft), that it drew water from the ocean and blasted it into the sky. And how much water? About 146 teragrams (a teragram is equal to one trillion grams) enough to fill 58,000 olympic size swimming pools. That’s about 10% of the total atmospheric vapor already in the atmosphere.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said JPL atmospheric scientist Luis Millán, who led the study. “We had to carefully inspect all the measurements in the plume to make sure they were trustworthy.”


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8, and the new space novel Holdout. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. This edition was edited by Kyla Mandel.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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