VIENNA (AP) - Think of it as a galactic garbage dump.
With a recent satellite collision still fresh on minds,
participants at a meeting in the Austrian capital this week are
discussing ways to deal with space debris - junk that is clogging
up the orbit around the Earth.
Some suggest a cosmic cleanup is the way to go. Others say time,
energy and funds are better spent on minimizing the likelihood of
future crashes by improving information sharing.
The informal discussions on the sidelines of a meeting of the
United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which
began Monday and ends Friday, arose from concern about the
collision of a derelict Russian spacecraft and a working U.S.
Iridium commercial satellite.
The Feb. 10 incident, which is still under investigation,
generated space junk that could circle the Earth and threaten other
satellites for the next 10,000 years; it added to the already
worrying amount of debris surrounding the planet.
Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris,
said about 19,000 objects are present in Earth's low and high orbit
- including about 900 satellites, but much of it is just plain
He estimated that included in the 19,000 count are about a
thousand objects larger than 10 centimeters (4 inches) that were
created by last week's satellite collision, in addition to many
smaller ones. He predicted that if more junk accumulates, the
likelihood of similar collisions - currently very rare - will
increase by 2050.
To Johnson, the "true solution" in the long run is to go get
the junk - or push it away to a higher altitude before it has time
to crash into anything.
"Today's environment is all right but the environment is going
to get worse, therefore I need to start thinking about the future
and how can I clean up sometime in the future," he said.
Johnson is the co-lead of an International Academy of
Astronautics study that is exploring ways of extracting space
debris from the Earth's orbit.
Some of the suggestions sound pretty spaced out.
One proposes attaching balloons to pieces of debris to increase
their atmospheric drag and bring them back to Earth faster.
Another, said Johnson, foresees attaching a 10-mile (16-kilometer)
electrodynamic tether to debris that would generate a current,
which then could be controlled from the ground enabling technicians
to bring it down.
Many scientists are skeptical about the possibility of a
Richard Crowther, the chief British delegate to the meeting,
suggested extracting debris from space was costly and risked
causing more collisions or explosions that, in turn, would generate
Crowther, an expert on space debris and so-called Near Earth
Objects, suggested it was important to improve information-sharing
about the location of objects in orbit to minimize future crashes
since each collision creates more debris, further congesting the
"The information to a large extent is out there, but the owners
of the data tend to keep the information to themselves," Crowther
said, acknowledging that the U.S. has been "very good" about
making its data publicly available.
To Brian Weeden, technical consultant at the nonprofit Secure
World Foundation, the ideal scenario would involve the creation of
a global network that would funnel data on the whereabouts of space
debris into a clearing house for all.
"The vision we have is a network where a number of different
countries - each of which has a sensor or radar - contributes data
from that sensor or radar to a central location," Weeden said.
The European Space Agency has begun a program that goes part way
toward meeting that goal by monitoring space debris and setting up
uniform standards to prevent future collisions far above the
Launched in January, the 50 million euro ($64 million) program -
dubbed Space Situational Awareness - aims to increase information
for scientists on the ground about the estimated 13,000 satellites
and other man-made bodies orbiting the planet.
But a worldwide system is unlikely to be created any time soon.
While the U.S., France and others have expressed informal interest,
no state has pledged official support, Weeden said.
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