|Related: NASA - JHU/APL -JPL - Swales - Orbital Sciences
Have you ever wondered what happened to Timothy Leary, along with Gene Roddenberry and 52 other notables? They are in earth orbit. There are two Celestis burial satellites in space and whether Tim and Gene share a satellite or are riding in separate capsules is not known.
There are 111,000 man-made objects that are larger than a golf ball orbiting earth. Among these, 8,870 are larger than a coffee cup. Any object larger than a coffee cup can be lethal to any satellite it should impact. You can count 2,000 dead satellites, hundreds of spent third stage rockets, and, surprisingly, 34 nuclear reactor modules, all of which are much larger than a coffee cup.
A lot of space junk is created by design or, better, a lack of design. After a satellite reaches orbit, it goes through a deployment stage. The satellite is separated from the rocket motor, instruments are uncovered, solar panels are deployed, antennas extended. Metal covers, connector plugs and cabling, lens caps and other parts are routinely un-tethered from the rocket and satellite. These objects go into their own undefined orbit. Every piece adds to a long list of lethal space junk.
Impact between space junk and orbiting hardware is catastrophic. Traveling at thousands of miles an hour, large and small objects are lethal to anything they meet. Objects no larger than a pencil eraser can bust through a solar panel or tear into the interior of a satellite, destroying wiring and electronic modules, creating more debris.
What is the probability of space collision? Considering that space is three dimensional, there is a lot of room for space junk to live peacefully with its operational cousins. Orbits are at altitudes from 124 miles to 304,0000 miles. However, there has been a huge increase in satellites put into orbit. Beginning in the early nineteen nineties, space exploitation has really gotten into gear.
Space junk is concentrated in the most desirable orbits. It's very expensive to lift satellites into space. The majority of launches are from an area near the equator and eastward. You get more bang for the buck. The cost per pound to put a satellite into earth orbit is in the thousands of dollars.
All orbits decay and space junk falls back toward earth. When making a wish on a shooting star, you may be making a wish on falling space junk. Major pieces of Sky Lab, a low orbit space habitat, survived the fall to impact in the Australian outback. However, space junk is being created much faster than its natural move to destruction.
Work has begun on the first draft of an international standard for orbital debris reduction. NASA is contributing. It wasn't too long ago when there were only two countries that could launch satellites: Russia and the United States. Then the French developed a launch capability. Now we can add China with more to follow. Countries without the capability to launch their own satellites contract those who can. Its a matter of national prestige to own one's own satellite.
Consider future litigations. The Zimmer Company of Lativa has brought suit against the Bizx Corporation of Chile for negligence in causing the destruction of the Zimmer satellite. That by careless disregard in its satellite design, expended parts impacted on the Zimmer satellite causing its malfunction. The Zimmer Company wishes to receive compensatory damages of 200 million dollars and punitive damages of one billion dollars.
Good for lawyers, bad for insurance companies.
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