One of the hot issues within the space community is how to deal with orbiting debris. The first thing that we need to do is understand the problem. There are literally millions of pieces of orbiting junk that have been left in space by the world’s space-farring nations over the past 50 years. Now we have a galactic mess on our hands. What do we do now?
The first question is: Why do anything? We know it would be expensive to just go into space to pick up the trash. Nobody wants to pay for it. It is not productive. It will not solve the healthcare or economic crisis. No one is going to make money by spending billions to remove worthless trash. So, why are we even talking about it?
The answer is simple and unfortunate. We have to clean up the space around Earth in order to preserve our modern way of life. Doing nothing will lead to the loss of space assets. The loss of these assets means you will lose a great deal of today’s productivity and conveniences. If space were shut off for a day, consider how it would impact your life.
There would be no GPS, i.e., that wonderful in-car navigation system would not work. Most of the banking transactions would be stopped or delayed for days. Your direct-to-home TV reception would cease to work. The U.S. power grids might simply shut down.
Many of your credit cards would not work. Most intercontinental phone calls would not go through. National security would be severely compromised. And, finally and maybe most important, the Weather Channel might not work. Now think about permanently shutting off space.
If nothing is done about space debris, we may well eventually have such a permanent shut down. So, we do have to do something to insure continued use of space for our everyday life. Fortunately, as we speak, the very best space engineers are tackling the problem of how to tackle space debris and get it out of the way.
The most dangerous debris objects are those that used to be satellites. They have since expired and are now large derelicts of space. Some are simply orbiting around Earth in the same orbits that they occupied when they we alive.
Others remain in their original orbits, but are spinning or tumbling out of control. Imagine you are appointed the astronaut that has the assignment to go after these wild pieces of debris. You are given a brand new space trash scow and your first task is to capture an old communications satellite that is spinning at 40 rpm.
It is the size of a school bus and is totally non-cooperative. How would you bring it under control and attach a retro-rocket to it? The answer is: No one knows how to do it. So, there you are.
There are hundreds of these spinning school buses out there and you have a job that cannot be done. Let’s hope those space engineers that are now working the problem get an answer soon, or the lights may just go out. Ouch!