Better Than Toilet Ice

September 21st, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

We can probably agree some deaths are ignominious, while funny to dispassionate observers. Think getting  run over by a garbage truck.

Likewise would be dying when a big chunk of blue ice from an aircraft toilet crashes through your roof. Far better, if you must meet a violent end, to succumb to a piece of a space rocket. Such death by space debris is unlikely, but increasingly possible.


How likely? Well for scare numbers, maybe millions of thingummies are orbiting the earth, in the down-and-dirty PPT from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program. That’s an extreme way to think of it — millions of bits of the 28,000-plus things humans have shot into orbit since Sputnik in 1957. Over 9,000 of those are up and around there, with under 550 of them functional.

Most of the others are in pieces from those  millions smaller than 1cm to over 100K from 1cm to 10cm to over 11K bigger than that. NASA tracks the largest category. Others do too, like the European Space Agency, whose Space Debris Program estimated that as of 2008, over 140K objects were in orbit above us.

So, Henny Penny, is the sky falling? Well, yes, but for any one of us, the odds are very good.

If the NASA satellite about to fall (drawing of it to right) wastes some earthlings, we can except lots of panicked calls for cleaning our celestial playroom. For its part, our space agency figures that even this six ton piece of junk will either disintegrate in the atmosphere or fall harmlessly. As NASA likes to put it, it would likely burn and crash on “uninhabited landmass.”

They don’t know when it will reenter or where it or parts of it will land. Their best guess is that it’s a 3,200-to-1 shot that it will smash into one of us. Fear not the heavenly garbage truck, they say.

It leads one to ask what’s up with what’s up?

If you want to roll your own, start with those NASA and ESA links above. You might also click:

Short takeaways include that governments don’t care a whole lot about the minuscule chance of humans being hit. They do fret that their populated or otherwise expensive satellites get destroyed or damaged by all the space junk. Another is that we are at critical mass, with all the rubble zooming around and around and around.

Supposedly, NASA and its counterparts are real sorry. They intend to do something yet undefined sometime yet undecided when they can afford it.

Don’t expect any gigantic space vacuum cleaners or rocket-part recyclers anytime soon. We supposedly have 10 to 20 years (a blink in big-project time) to do something. To get a flavor of how far along we are, go to page 150 of the big report (165 in PDF numbering) to find:

Emphasis is placed on research and development because the government does not yet know what technologies will ultimately be necessary or are feasible on the scale required for effective orbital debris retrieval and removal, as well as guaranteed prevention of collisions if such an event is predicted. Although the National Space Policy calls for research and development in this field, it does not specify a threshold or goal, but rather intends such research and development as a beginning to the entire process.

Be ready to duck, I suppose. It won’t work, but gives you something to do.


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