November 23, 2021 - 11:42 am

 A Tougher Challenge 

Russia has recently joined a club of nations that have conducted anti-satellite missile tests, shooting down a Soviet-era satellite and creating a field of debris in space. American and European officials sharply criticized Russia's missile test. The missile test brought attention to the issue of space waste - all of the old bits of machinery that humans have left in space.

                                 Space waste or Junk or debris possess a great threat to the safety of astronauts, International Space Stations, and hundred of functional satellites orbiting the Earth. Larger pieces are easier to track and avoid but it's difficult to track pieces smaller than 4 inches (10 centimeters). Even small debris can still pose a major threat though. Space debris is often travelling faster than 17,000 miles per hour around the Earth. At that speed, pieces of debris could destroy any spacecraft or satellite it collided with. In the 1980s, a Soviet satellite broke up as a result of a suspected debris strike.

                                 Earth's atmosphere can naturally clean the debris. It pulls the artificial floating space junk fragments downward into its thick lower atmosphere, eventually burning up within a few years. However, the increasing carbon concentrations lead to reduced density of our planet's upper atmosphere which may lessen his effect. But space junk above 1000 kms is expected to continue circling for a century or more. In the short-term, little can be done to mitigate this new cloud of space debris, but anyone with anything in space is on high alert to avoid it. In the long run, experts recommend working on global solutions to remove debris.

                                 Remediation is a tough challenge. Despite the difficulties, there is growing International recognition that space debris is a dangerous problem. A Consortium of private companies recently created the Net Zero Space charter to reduce debris. South Australian company Newmann Space has developed an "in-space electric propulsion system" that can be used in low Earth orbit to extend the missions of spacecraft, move satellites, or de-orbit them and the US Space Force is looking for ways to combat the problem as well. While the world still doesn't yet have a full understanding of Russia's actions, this event is a wake-up call on the importance of efforts to reduce pollution in Earth's orbit.