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Beware Space Junk

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit

Interesting article from the BBC about space junk floating around in the atmosphere (published 1 Sept 2011). Lots of defunct satellites and fragments from space missions are floating around in orbit, posing a threat to satellites that are in use, and even manned space missions like the international space station. Here is a taste:

A report by the National Research Council says the debris could cause fatal leaks in spaceships or destroy valuable satellites.

It calls for international regulations to limit the junk and more research into the possible use of launching large magnetic nets or giant umbrellas.

The debris includes clouds of minuscule fragments, old boosters and satellites.

Some computer models show the amount of orbital rubbish “has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures,” the research council said in a statement on Thursday.

The article sites several recent incidents that have increased the amount of space junk in recent years, including a 2007 incident in which China intentionally blew up a defunct satellite as a test. This apparently nearly doubled the amount of space junk at the time. Check out the whole article (including embedded video) here. With the increasing reliance on satellite communication to spread information and track weather, this could be a big deal in the years to come. Note: the report above is behind a paywall if you want a print edition, but you can read it online for free! Congrats, NASA. (For my whining about the usual way these reports are hidden, see this post.)

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