What is Orbital Debris and How Does It Occur in Space?
In ever-increasing numbers, we are surrounded by objects in space that isn't satellites or planets but rather artificial debris. The discarded rocket parts exploded satellites, and other remnants of human activity that float around in outer space have increasingly become dangerous to our satellites and even manned space exploration. This problem worsens as space debris increases without seeming to end in sight.
What is Orbital Debris?
Orbital debris, sometimes referred to as space junk, is a term used to describe the man-made objects in space that is left over from past space missions and activities. Orbital debris can include spent rocket stages, old satellites, and pieces of space hardware that have broken off during collisions. These objects are now traveling at extremely high speeds, making them very difficult to track and avoid.
Most of these objects fall back to the Earth's surface after a few years or decades. They can be as small as tiny paint flecks or as large as defunct spacecraft or rocket stages. However, a number of larger objects can remain in orbit for hundreds or even thousands of years. Generally, spent rocket stages and defunct satellites that remain in orbit are junks that will eventually break up and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.
What is the Cause of Orbital Debris in Space?
The process of adding debris to space is a cause of concern. The biggest contributor to orbital debris in space is satellites launching into orbit. The rockets used to launch the satellites are very powerful devices that create a lot of friction and heat, which causes them to slow down and eventually burn up in the atmosphere. Every year, many satellites explode, and their pieces become another contributor to the increasing amount of debris floating around in orbit.
The collisions between satellites and objects like the ones we send into space are inevitable. They are one of the reasons why we have to monitor space debris all the time and ensure that our satellites don't get destroyed by it. Occasionally, one satellite's orbit will cross over another satellite's, and if they collide, the pieces from both satellites join together to create even more debris.
Over time, these collisions and the rubble from previous collisions can add up, causing more and more collisions. The satellites or debris that remain at higher altitudes of 36,000 km, where weather and communication satellites are located, will continue to circle the Earth. At the same time, the pieces falling deeper into our atmosphere could cause even more problems here on Earth. This can lead to a large number of space objects being destroyed and creating even more debris in the process.
Types of Orbital Debris
There are several different types of orbital debris, each posing unique threats to our satellites and other space hardware. These can include:
Type #1: Abandoned Launch Vehicle Stages
These are large pieces of rockets that have been launched into space but no longer have any use. These can include spent stages from the launch of satellites or the upper stages used to boost the rocket into higher orbits. These large pieces of debris can create a lot of friction and heat as they fall back through the atmosphere, potentially damaging other satellites or even causing collisions.
Type #2: Fragments from Collisions
Over time, satellites in orbit will inevitably collide with one another. This can cause thousands of smaller pieces of debris to be released into space, which can continue collating with other satellites and create even more debris. More collisions mean a greater risk of damage to our space hardware and possibly even more collisions in the future.
Type #3: Mission-related Debris
This includes any pieces of hardware intentionally released as part of a satellite mission. For example, the antennae and solar panels used to power and controlled a satellite can sometimes be released into space after their initial mission is complete. These pieces of debris can be very small but still pose a significant risk to other satellites and spacecraft.
Does It Get Cleaned Up?
Junk in space doesn't just get cleaned up for the most part. There is little incentive or desire to do so. While some organizations like NASA have programs that track debris in orbit and keep an eye out for possible collisions, the main focus is monitoring and preventing damage from current space debris. There are very few efforts to actually reduce the amount of space junk that we have in orbit, and this is most likely due to technical challenges involved with cleaning up debris.
Some scientists and organizations have developed policies to maintain and keep the newly created orbital debris at the lowest possible levels. These policies aim to minimize the chances of future collisions between satellites and keep the amount of space junk under control. Another potential solution that has been proposed is to create technology that will allow satellites to remove or deorbit any space junk that could potentially collide with them.
While some progress has been made in these areas, there is still much work to be done before any action can be taken. As long as we continue to launch satellites and objects into space, the problem of orbital debris will likely remain. However, continued efforts to monitor and control it can help minimize its risks to future space missions and our planet.
Is Orbital Debris Actually Dangerous?
Orbital debris can be incredibly dangerous. The exploration efforts of the space age have led to a significant increase in the amount of debris in low-Earth orbit, with each collision creating more and more fragments. Other satellites and spacecraft are at risk of being damaged by this debris, which can cause a cascade effect where even more collisions occur. As space missions become more frequent, the problem of orbital debris will become even more urgent.
Overall, the best way to deal with orbital debris is to maintain and control it. These are the most worrisome, as they can seriously threaten our space assets and even human-crewed space missions. This can be done through policies that limit the number of satellites and spacecraft launched into space, as well as regulations that require existing objects to be removed from orbit after their missions are complete. As our reliance on technology and space-based systems continue to grow, it will become even more important that we find ways to limit the amount of orbital debris.