Space junk comprises a large amount of artificial debris present in the low Earth orbit.
Space junk is usually artificial junk reaching space due to frequent space activities such as satellites, space exploration, and rocket launches. However, the debris environment of space also has various natural forms of junk, including meteoroid, which commonly falls on Earth's surface.
The onset of space exploration opened a gateway for humans to learn everything about extraordinary celestial things and activities. The curiosity to learn more and more led Earthlings to set up a space station to produce activity gauging instruments such as active satellites and send them out in Earth's atmosphere to measure outer space movement.
While satellites helped humanity to learn a lot about the world outside of ours, they also drew various repercussions in the shape of space debris. According to the US Department of Defense's global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors, over 27,000 pieces of orbital junk are found to be orbiting Earth's outer surface at a very fast speed.
It is now time to explore more about one of the major human concerns from space, space junk!
What is space junk?
Space junk is the unwanted material floating around in space after the end of its functionality. Either it is obtained from natural sources, such as meteoroids, or made by humans, such as a piece of machinery, and even smaller debris such as paint chips. The most common cause of orbital junk is human-made satellites.
Satellites are the primary source of collecting information from outer space and depict the movements back on Earth. They are created to accomplish tasks and scattered across lower orbits to collect useful information while maintaining a connection with the humans on the planet. Working satellites, such as weather satellites, Global Positioning System satellites, Navigation satellites, and Communication satellites are all found in the Earth's orbit to accomplish a variety of significant tasks. These satellites are sent with limited fuel and are only functional till the time the fuel runs out or any external issue hinders it. Although these satellites are burned up in the atmosphere due to friction, there are many that fail to do so and end up as space junk.
As soon as a satellite's functionality ends, it is either exploded or sent into the graveyard orbit, which is located in higher orbits, not to hinder working satellites. The discarding method of a satellite depends upon the location of the satellite. Other than satellites, space expeditions are another common producer of orbital debris. Rocket launches, setting up of space stations, space walks, and many more activities in space are highly relevant to the rising amount of orbital debris.
In various research, it is found that orbital debris is mostly found in the low Earth orbit, which is also the orbit opted by space agencies to set up satellites and space stations. The presence of orbital debris can cause great destruction, which the space-age is actively overlooking.
How does space junk affect space?
Space junk is full of insignificant smaller objects, natural and artificial, but these minute objects orbiting Earth are fast enough to cause lethal damage. The future of space-age exploration is at risk due to orbital debris. For now, there has been no instance of space junk harming human life on Earth, but there have been many instances when other satellites present in space were part of a catastrophe caused by space junk.
The year 2009 saw a massive satellite collision caused by two satellites striking into each other. One was an active satellite called Irridium 33, and the other was one of the dead satellites, called Kosmos 2251. These two satellites collided at a speed of 26,100 mph (42,000 kph), which led to the destruction of both, enlightening the overlooked issue of the human-made debris problem in space before the world. Around 23,000 large and tiny pieces of orbital debris were created, which are still actively and unknowingly in orbit.
More than causing harm to any human life, orbital debris is likely to affect the future endeavours of exploring space by hindering the path of satellites and rockets. Space stations have also experienced the adversity of space junk. The Cupola observatory module of the International Space Station experienced it once while orbiting Earth. Reportedly, a small metal or paint chip collided with the International Space Station module Cupola's thick layered window and caused a dent on its surface.
Luckily, the space station didn't suffer any severe damage, but astronaut Tim Peake said greater damage is more than likely to happen if a larger piece of space junk smashes into the spacecraft. The space station keeps making minor changes to its position from time to time in orbits of the Earth's atmosphere to protect itself from any possible space junk or tracked object present in the same low Earth orbit. The high-speed collision of the tiniest bit of space junk is lethal for a machine as big as a space station and poses harm to the lives of people aboard the ISS.
What forms more space junk?
As much as the surrounding ecosystem of human-inhabited Earth is experiencing repercussions, the onset of the space age has led humans to draw the same adverse effect on space as well. Tons of space shuttles, space stations, and satellites sent in the low Earth orbit are creating havoc in the shape of space debris, which in return is terrorizing humans with its uncontrolled effect. Artificially curated space machines contain many articles that can take years and even centuries to decompose, yet they are the greatest contributors to creating space debris.
Collisions, burning, or breakdown are various instances that may cause the creation of junk but what remains unchanged is the source, which is human-made. Lack of strategies to cover the entire journey of satellites - from deploying it, to its safe return and a reliable way to decompose it after its mission completion - contributes to the creation of debris. A single collision can cause the production of millions of debris pieces which are equally hazardous, just like a giant piece. Continuous tests and researches are sending countless satellites into Earth's orbit, but the right way to get them back safely without any space junk is yet to be found out.
Dead spacecraft, damaged solar panels, metal pieces, the fragment of broken equipment, spacecraft tools, and satellites are some of the most commonly known pieces of space debris that are still present in space in large numbers. Besides human waste, natural things such as asteroidal material known as meteoroids also function as space junk in the Earth's orbit. Natural decomposition is comprehensible with meteoroids, but artificial space debris is hard to get rid of. Chelyabinsk Meteor Airburst event is a reminder of how lethal meteoroids can get.
Steps Taken to Remove Space Junk
The need to reduce space debris in the current age is extremely important as it dictates the future of space exploration necessary to unveil new mysteries about the universe. Leading organizations such as United Nations have asked all the companies and relevant participants to contribute their best in eradicating as much space junk as possible, or simply try not to create anymore. Countless endeavours are being opted for to keep the space debris level in check.
Deorbiting is widely considered a process to keep space junk in check. The process involves removing a non-functional or close-to-end functioning body to be removed from its orbit and pulled into Earth's atmosphere to gradually get it back on the planet or destroy it through the speed of re-entering. Deorbiting occurs by increasing atmospheric drag so it can eventually fall out of orbit. This process of deorbiting helps clear out the orbit of waste artificial body and debris as low as possible.
In order to avoid collision or orbiting bodies, another technique is considered a collision avoidance measure. By limiting or restricting the number of bodies in the same orbit, repelling it from getting overcrowded is a great way to avoid striking and creating more debris. Active removal and sending objects to the graveyard orbit at the end of their life is another way to evade colliding. Heavily trafficked orbits are constantly under threat of experiencing collision, so it is best to prepare beforehand and keep traffic as scarce as it can get.
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