The US gets serious about space junk beginning with is a new plan to de-orbit debris

After decades of space races, the government is taking legal steps to limit the cloud of space debris orbiting Earth.

The US government is taking legal action to limit space debris – the cloud of dangerous debris that still orbits the Earth.

It comes after more than six decades of space races, rocket launches, planetary missions, and booming satellite activity.

The US government is taking legal steps to limit space junk — the cloud of dangerous debris still orbiting the Earth.

It comes after more than six decades of space races, rocket launches, planetary missions and booming satellite activity.

What is Space Derbis?

Space debris encompasses both natural meteoroid and artificial (human-made) orbital debris. Meteoroids are in orbit about the sun, while most artificial debris is in orbit about the Earth (hence the term “orbital” debris).

Orbital debris is any human-made object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves a useful function. Such debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris.

There are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger (up to 0.4 inches, or 1 centimeter) or larger, and approximately 100 million pieces of debris about .04 inches (or one millimeter) and larger. There is even more smaller micrometer-sized (0.000039 of an inch in diameter) debris.

Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. A number of space shuttle windows were replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks. In fact, millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the highest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit.

In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.

On Feb. 10, 2009, a defunct Russian spacecraft collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial spacecraft. The collision added more than 2,300 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller debris to the inventory of space junk.

China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller debris to the debris problem.

In a key move, the Federal Communications Commission last week gave new satellites a five-year lifetime after they complete their mission, by which time they must deorbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Previously, a lifespan of 25 years was considered the guideline, but it was never legally enforced.

The new rule only applies to satellites launched by US operators and will not solve the space debris problem on its own. However, experts agree that this is a good start and in line with international efforts.

“It’s about making space rules and having a legal framework that people have to abide by,” said Carolin Frueh, associate professor of aerospace engineering at Purdue University.

“That’s a big step.”

Earth’s orbital space is vast and there are only about 5000 active satellites.

But millions of pieces of space debris are estimated to orbit our planet – from entire rocket stages that can weigh several tons to inactive satellites, lost pieces of space equipment, stray nuts and bolts, and the shattered fragments of orbital collisions.

Most of these parts are tiny – smaller than a US5c piece. But they are orbiting at more than 15,000 miles per hour, and experts estimate there are about 30,000 pieces of space debris large enough and fast enough to pose a serious problem and potentially a catastrophe.

There have already been some close talks.

The International Space Station changed orbit in June to avoid debris from a Soviet-era satellite that had been blown up during a Russian test of a new anti-satellite missile.

So far, the ISS has had to orbit space debris more than 30 times during its 23-year mission. It was also damaged by space debris, and on another occasion the ISS crew was ready to depart in the event of a collision.The US government is taking legal action to limit space debris – the cloud of dangerous debris that still orbits the Earth. Recognition: NASA

And the problem gets worse. One report estimates that there will be about 10,000 more pieces of dangerous space debris in orbit by the end of this century.

“Space debris is not so far that we can no longer carry out space missions,” said Thomas Schildknecht, Director of the Zimmerwald Observatory and Professor of Astronomy at the University of Bern.

“But the risk is increasing, and if we’re not careful, in 10 years we’ll be at a level where we can’t do anything anymore.”

Schildknecht’s team has been tracking the most dangerous pieces of space debris for several years and now uses lasers to trace their trajectories.

Not only can astronomers predict dangerous collisions, but they also use their database to plan observations when their view isn’t obstructed by stray space debris.

“We get accurate information so we can let astronomers know when something flies by, so they can choose their observing times a little differently,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

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