Space junk: Worse than you think (pictures)

More than 500,000 pieces of space debris circling Earth pose a threat to satellites and communications systems worldwide.


James Martin

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Tracking space junk

Orbital debris, not functional satellites, make up 95 percent of the objects in this computer-generated illustration of objects in low-Earth orbit. That veritable explosion of space junk is causing problems, and it's getting worse. NASA estimates that there are more than 500,000 pieces of hazardous space debris orbiting Earth.
And as time goes on, the bigger pieces of abandoned debris, such as satellites, begins to collide with other objects, or each other, resulting in the larger pieces of junk turning into more and more smaller pieces of junk, increasing the population of hazardous debris.
DARPA is so concerned with the problem that it's started what it calls the SpaceView program, which seeks to enlist amateur astronomers as sky watchers, helping to track all the debris floating above.
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Windshield nick

A fleck of paint left this crater on the surface of Space Shuttle Challenger's front window on STS-7.
On average, two Shuttle windows are replaced per mission due to damages caused by micro-meteoroid and orbital debris impacts.
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How much junk is up there?

Scientists es­timate that about 500,000 bits of junk measuring 1 to 10 centimeters are now orbiting Earth, while another several hundred million bits smaller than 1 centimeter also exist out there.
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Solid rocket motor slag

Aluminum oxide slag is a byproduct of solid rocket motor (SRM). Orbital SRMs used to boost satellites into higher orbits are potentially a significant source of the centimeter-sized orbital debris. This piece was recovered from a test firing of a Shuttle solid rocket booster.
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Object in Earth orbit by type

A chart showing the monthly object in Earth orbit by type shows how the problem of space debris is getting worse.
There are many sources of debris. One source is discarded hardware. Launch vehicle upper stages have been left in orbit after they are spent. Satellites are abandoned at the end of useful life, while spacecraft and mission operations have released items such as separation bolts, lens caps, momentum flywheels, nuclear reactor cores, clamp bands, auxiliary motors, launch vehicle fairings, and adapter shrouds.
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Debris impact on Hubble's antenna dish

An impact that completely penetrated the antenna dish of the Hubble Space Telescope.
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Hubble debris impacts

After in-space repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, the returned parts show many orbital debris impacts.
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Advance Electro-Optical System

The Advance Electro-Optical System (AEOS) located at the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing (AMOS) site on top of Haleakala volcano in Maui, Hawaii is one of the tools NASA uses to image satellites and measure the spectra of orbital debris.
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Cobra Dane radar

Here we see the Cobra Dane radar located on Shemya Island, Alaska. This phased array radar can detect and track objects as small as 5cm and is a contributing sensor to the U.S. satellite catalog.
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Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing

The Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing (AMOS) site. This optical sensor suite includes the 3.67m Advance Electro-Optical System (AEOS) telescope, a 1.6m telescope, two 1.2m telescopes, and three 1m Ground Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) telescope installations.
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Delta 2 propellant tank

This is the main propellant tank of the second stage of a Delta 2 launch vehicle which landed near Georgetown, Texas, on January 22, 1997. This approximately 250kg tank is primarily a stainless steel structure and survived re-entry relatively intact.
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Haystack and HAX radars

The Haystack and HAX radars located in Tyngsboro, Mass., are NASA's primary source of data on centimeter-sized orbital debris. These radars collect 600 hours of orbital debris data each per year.
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Orbital debris hole

View of an orbital debris hole made in the panel of the Solar Max experiment.
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Michigan Orbital Debris Survey Telescope

The Michigan Orbital Debris Survey Telescope (MODEST) near La Serena, Chile at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory is used for observations of the geosynchronous orbit regime. Observations are taken in two-week segments surrounding the new moon.
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STS-118 radiator hole

Endeavour suffered a major hit on the radiator during STS-118. The entry hole is just less than a half inch. The exit hole on the rear of the panel is much larger.
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Long Duration Exposure Facility

Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) was left in low Earth orbit (LEO) for 5.7 years before being retrieved by space shuttle Columbia in January 1990.
More than 20,000 impacts have been documented on LDEF, approximately 1,000 of which have been chemically analyzed in an attempt to determine the origin of the projectile. These measurements have provided NASA scientists important information not only on the micrometeoroid and orbital debris populations, but their orbital distributions as well.
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A Long Duration Exposure Facility panel

A closeup view of a panel from the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) spacecraft.
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Paint flakes

Even objects we think of as incredibly small, such as the paint flakes captured by the Mir Environmental Effects Payload (MEEP), seen here, are hazardous when moving at thousands of miles per hour. The MEEP was an International Space Station Phase 1 Risk Mitigation Experiment that provided a materials assessment for the construction and operation of the ISS.
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70m Goldstone antenna

When the 70m Goldstone antenna located near Barstow, Calif., is operated as a bi-static radar, it is capable of detecting 2mm debris at altitudes below 1,000km.
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Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site

The Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site located on the Kwajalein Atoll. Four radars are visible here, ALCOR (ARPA-Lincoln C-band Observables Radar), TRADEX (Target Resolution and Discrimination EXperiment), MMW (MilliMeter Wave), and ALTAIR (ARPA Long-range Tracking and and Instrumentation Radar).
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Debris in the desert

On January 21, 2001, a Delta 2 third stage, known as a PAM-D (Payload Assist Module - Delta), re-entered the atmosphere over the Middle East. The titanium motor casing of the PAM-D, weighing about 70kg, landed in Saudi Arabia about 240km from the capital of Riyadh.
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Cosmos 954 space debris nightmare

A secret Soviet-navy satellite called Cosmos 954, which was launched on September 18, 1977, was powered by a compact nuclear reactor, making its failure, breakup, and re-entry particularly frightening.
Two events in recent years have greatly increased the amount of debris on orbit. On February 10, 2009, the active Iridium 33 satellite collided with the defunct Cosmos 2251 satellite, and created about 2,000 tracked objects. On January 11, 2007, the Chinese deliberately destroyed the FY-1C satellite in a test of an anti-satellite weapon, creating more than 3,000 tracked objects. The tracked objects represent a small fraction of the debris objects created.
23 of 24 Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies

Lottie Williams, hit by junk

In 1997, Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Okla., reported that she was struck on the shoulder by falling debris while walking. It was later confirmed to be part of the fuel tank of a Delta II rocket.
Williams is the only person known to have ever been hit by falling space junk.
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More than 500,000 objects

Space debris populations seen from outside geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Note the two primary debris fields, the ring of objects in GEO, and the cloud of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO).
The debris environment in low Earth orbit is expected to continue to grow over time, even if strict end-of-life disposal measures are followed. Removing large objects from orbit is no easy task. Almost no spacecraft are designed to be physically grappled once they are in orbit, and they may be tumbling or spinning, making them difficult to control. But active debris removal such as this is a first step to cleaning up the environment in space, and maintaining the low Earth orbit as a safe place to do business.

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