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Trash Trouble: Unraveling the Mystery of Space Debris

Dallas, Texas


A picture of a land filled with trash
Landfill

On the surface of the Earth, we have junkyards and landfills to contain all of our unwanted garbage. However, the tiniest bits of space debris are floating around due to space’s lack of surface area and containment ability. Of course, the planets aren’t going around having parties and littering their own home, so where is this trash coming from? To understand this, we first need to investigate what the debris is. 


The Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors track over 27,000 pieces of debris in our solar system. However, this number is an inaccurate report of the mass quantity of orbital debris. Human-made orbital debris can be categorized as any “object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves a useful function.” This debris includes non-functional spacecraft, fragmentation debris, mission-related debris, and abandoned vehicle launch stages. So, to answer the question: Where is this trash coming from? It’s coming from us.


A satellite exploding in space creating debris
Orbital Debris

1957’s Space Race Era exhausted resources and led various countries to expedite launches to gain an advantage over other countries. As a result of this competitive race, many launches and missions failed due to a lack of understanding of complicated equipment. Consequently, space became increasingly littered with debris, affecting equipment today. For example, a 1996 French satellite was impacted and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had combusted a decade earlier, and its pieces were still floating around in space. Orbital debris threatens our satellites, space stations, rockets, and other space equipment. Furthermore, if we do not reduce the amount of space debris, we would be at risk of surrendering our ability to explore space. This would impact our economy, national security, and our nation’s science and technology enterprises.



In acknowledging this information, here are various solutions scientists are implementing: Design-for-Demise, End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration, and the RemoveDEBRIS missions. These missions are designed to reduce the amount of space debris in an eco-friendly manner. For example, Design-for-Demise (D4D) is an initiative that constructs space hardware in a specific manner so that the hardware would dissolve into a small cloud of particles that isn’t harmful to anything. Next, the End-of-life Services utilize magnetic technology to capture space debris successfully. It’s kind of how we clean our oceans using large nets, except we use magnets to clean up outer space.  Lastly, RemoveDEBRIS is another project aimed at performing “key active debris removal technology tests” to discover the best ways to clean up space. 


To conclude, we have made a mess in space and need to clean it up.





REFERENCES


Published, Leonard David. “Space Junk Threat: Researchers Working to Reduce Impact of Falling Debris.” Space.com, 7 Sep. 2022, www.space.com/space-junk-threat-research-reduce-impact. Accessed 22, Aug. 2023.


Thomas, Erin. “Breakdown: What Is Space Junk and Why Is It a Problem?” Https://Www.actionnews5.com, 8 Oct. 2021, www.actionnews5.com/2021/10/08/breakdown-what-is-space-junk-why-is-it-

problem/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.


The European Space Agency. "Design for Demise - a First Look." www.esa.int, 24 Feb.2016,www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology/CDF?Design_For_Demise_A_First_Look#:~:text=Design%20for%20device%20(D4D)%20is. Accessed 22 Aug 2023.


Airbus. “RemoveDEBRIS.” Airbus.com, 2023, www.airbus.com/en/space/in-space-infrastructure/removedebris. Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.


AeroSpace. “A Brief History of Space Debris | the Aerospace Corporation.” Aerospace Corporation, 2 Nov. 2022, aerospace.org/article/brief-history-space-debris. Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.


Garcia, Mark. “Space Debris and Human Spacecraft.” NASA, 26 May 2021, www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/orbital_debris.html. Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.





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