Peggy Whitson may have awed the world this week for her record-setting 535th cumulative day off the planet — the most for any U.S. astronaut — but she and her fellow space travelers may soon be grounded … not by NASA, but by the mounting tons of debris spinning in the low-Earth orbit (the same atmospheric level where the International Space Station and most other crewed missions operate, as well as the majority of communications, navigation and military satellites).
In fact, according the NASA, there are currently more than 500,000 pieces of registered space junk (including castoff equipment and straggling bits of now-defunct rockets and satellites) orbiting our planet at speeds of up to 18,000 miles per hour.
And at that rate, a collision with even a tiny fleck of paint residue could be the kinetic equivalent of a four-door sedan hurling at the speed of 60 miles per hour. (Think Sandra Bullock’s craft facing off with a bombardment of space junk in the movie “Gravity.” If you didn’t see the movie, suffice it to say that it didn’t end well for the spacecraft.)
Not surprisingly, most of space debris was created by the biggest space explorers, the United States and Russia, although China, which has been on a commercial satellite-launching binge for the last decade, is also responsible for a considerable share of space trash.
And as more and more nations and private corporations get into the satellite-launching game, more and more residual junk — and deconstructing satellites and crafts — are strewing Earth’s low-orbit sphere with debris.
While large craft collisions with space debris are still relatively rare (there have so far been only two major incidences), the problem is that small collisions are now commonplace, as frequent as 100 a year.
And when one piece of space junk crashes into another piece of space junk, they both tend to burst into even more tiny shards of scrap, creating an ever-increasing cascade of junk begetting more junk.
And these tiny shards can have major detrimental consequences for space vehicles and satellites.
Just last year, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-1A satellite was hit by a small object just a few millimeters wide that damaged its solar panels and left a visible dent nearly a half meter across.
That led to a drop in the spacecraft’s energy supply and a sudden shift in its orbit and orientation.
Fortunately, the satellite itself was not damaged and is still in operation, but it was a serious close call for the ESA.
Meanwhile, the low-Earth orbit of space is getting more crowded by the day, and is beginning to resemble the Periférico on a quincena Friday afternoon rush hour in December.
No one is really policing who can thrust objects into the planet’s stratosphere, and no one is taking responsibility for cleaning up the mess that a free-for-all low-Earth orbit merry-go-round is creating.
Of particular concern are smaller satellites being launched haphazardly into space by fly-by-night rocket payload companies.
Most of these smaller satellites are not equipped with navigation equipment, which means that once their mission is completed, they just keep orbiting until they run into an obstacle.
NASA, the ESA and other space agencies have warned that there is a “critical need” to remove defunct satellites from orbit before they disintegrate and generate even more debris.
But barely 60 percent of the satellites that should be disposed of at the end of their missions under current guidelines are, in fact, properly managed. (Navigation-equipped crafts that have ceased to be functional can be redirected into a lower strata of the atmosphere, where they self-destruct and disintegrate before their pieces can return to Earth.)
But many satellites and space crafts — even those that could be maneuvered out of the low-Earth orbit — are left to explode or break apart in this crucial segment of the stratosphere, and they have generated an estimated 750,000 pieces larger than 1 centimeter and more than 160 million larger than 1 millimeter (not all of which have been registered by NASA).
In other words, the world’s low-Earth orbit is now a swirling heap of garbage that can, at any time, cause havoc on manned space crafts and functional satellites.
Sixty years of human space exploration (the Soviets launched Sputnik back in 1957) has taken a serious environmental toll on our planet’s atmosphere.
If space travel and exploration is to continue, mankind is going to have to start cleaning up the mess it has made in the low-Earth orbit.
Otherwise, neither Peggy Whitson nor any other astronaut will be able to reach for the stars through the piles of space debris that is blocking their path.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]