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Transforming Orbit Into A Wasteland 247

I found an article (Yes, the article is now 404) in the CNN Space section this morning, talking about a recent report at a UN Conference on space. The author of the reporter alleges that programs like Star Wars and the like would basically turn LEO ? into a "wasteland" for satellites for decades or even centuries. And the wonderful part is that NASA's Off ice for Orbital Debris will close in October, due to budget cuts, despite 10s of thousands of already existing debris. Yah. Have fun with space tourism!Update: 04/23 19:14 GMT by H : It appears that the CNN article was pulled - I can't seem to find it - but had another report on the subject. And has also the updated story that CNN was linking to - and the update may be why it was pulled, because it appears that the Office for Space Debris may have some salvation yet.
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Transforming Orbit Into A Wasteland

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    a swarm of orbiting bolts around your planet to protect it against an alien invasion.
    • May I just remind everybody that LEO is a HUGE place. Way bigger than the earth.

      If you blow up a missile, the chance of a random space craft getting hit by a particle from the missile is very, very ,very slim.

      It's not going to be a scenario where a missile gets blown up, then the particles from the missile damage all these other spacecraft, causing more particles to go flying, and LEO is turned into a wasteland.

      Also, the vast majority of debris are small particles. These can cause damage, but they are unlikely to smash a spacecraft into tiny bits.

      This article's forecast is a little too grim. Don't worry about it.
  • by PopeAlien ( 164869 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:10PM (#3396621) Homepage Journal
    ..and on your left you can thousands of chunks of space debris hurtling towards us. The smaller chunks burst into beautiful firework displays as they hit the windows of our touring craft.. the larger chunks? Well, lets just say thats why we had you sign all those forms before you took this tour.

    • Re:Space Tourism.. (Score:2, Informative)

      by FortKnox ( 169099 )
      The smaller chunks burst into beautiful firework displays as they hit the windows of our touring craft.. the larger chunks?

      Read this []
      The office closing only handles debris smaller than 1cm. Anything larger is handled by the US Space Command (military, not NASA).
      • And of course the military makes all the data they're collecting public, right?
        • Well, putting your alarmism aside for a second, the military (US Air Force in this case) will likely make catalogs of orbiting debris available when commercial spacecraft become a reality. They already make much of that information public, though I don't know if that includes information on all orbiting objects now.
    • And remember, in the case of a water landing, your seat may be used as a floatation device.
    • Geez, you only have to say "Shields up!" and problem solved. I've seen it on the TV so it must be true... ;)
    • The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL has a display featuring a 1" or 2" crater that was put in the windshield of a Space Shuttle by an orbiting flake of paint.

      I'd hate to run into a 1/4" washer at 5 mi/sec.
      • I don't think you'd have long to think about it as all the air escaped from your space craft - but seriously - satellites/ space craft these days have shielding - similar in design to bullet proof vests but made of different materials. After all - if you spend x million putting a satellite up - you don't want it to stop working on day one!
    • Well, lets just say thats why we had you sign all those forms before you took this tour.

      • Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,

      • A tale of a fateful trip.
        It started here in this Lunar port,
        Aboard this expensive ship.
  • On the other hand (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wiredog ( 43288 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:10PM (#3396626) Journal
    If someone launched several nukes at the US, and the US (lacking an interceptor system) launched a retaliatory strike, would we give a damn about the condition of low earth orbit?
    • On the otherer hand, if they launch a few pounds of gravel into space before the nuclear attack, they will disable the "interceptior system" much the same way that the unmonitored debris will soon be disabling celphone sattelites.
      And who, in this modern world, is truly liable to launch "a few" nukes at the US??
      • On the otherer hand, if they launch a few pounds of gravel into space before the nuclear attack

        Two points, 1) It's much more complex than simply launching gravel. 2) I would imagine that a space based weapon designed to shoot down missles would have a pretty obvious defense against a missile full of gravel.

        And who, in this modern world, is truly liable to launch "a few" nukes at the US??

        China, North Korea and Iran. It is depresingly easy to imagine a war between North and South Korea or between China and Tiawan where we face the real possiblity of a nuclear attack against the mainland US (China has implied EXACTLY that threat "Americans care more about Los Angeles than they do Tai Pei." - Lt. Gen. Xiong Guang Kai). You should perhaps take China of the list though because though they only have "a few" ICBM's capable of hitting us now they are already working to change that to "a lot". North Korea and Iran on the other hand will probably never have the capablity to have a very large number of nukes or ICBM's to deliver them so they would remain liable to launch "a few".

        Countries less likely to attack us but capable of it (in the future) are Pakistan and India. Like N. Korea and Iran they are countries that are unlikely to ever have huge arsenals of ICBM's capable of reaching us but are likely in the future to have "a few". I can't come up with a scenario where India is a threat but Pakistan is not the most stable country and a takeover by radical islamists is not very far-fetched.

        All that being said it is impossible to predict what the next several decades hold. History has not stopped: there will still be wars, revolutions, coups, dictators even the occasional insane demogogue. We don't really know who is "liable" to launch a few nukes at us but the list of who *could* keeps getting longer.
    • If the condition of low earth orbit is what caused the lack of an interception system, I would certainly care about its condition. I think the idea is that something should be done about it now rather than when the nukes start flying back and forth.
    • Maybe we wouldn't care about LEO after a serious nuclear exchange, but the point to take away is that it's stupid to spend ALL THAT MONEY to build an interceptor system that is USELESS because the means and cost of disabing/destroying a satellite based interceptor system are trivial for those actually capable and intent on launching an ICBM based nuclear attack.

      This COMPLETELY IGNORES the EVEN MORE OBVIOUS fact that it is easy to mount a nuclear attack by means other than ICBM (and to possibly even avoid retaliation by doing so anonymously).

      • And if somebody makes an accidental launch, or if a false alarm causes a jumpy government to order a launch before the hotline rings? Would you like to be the one writing letters saying, "Well, we didn't think of that, so your relatives are all dead." ?

        Or if an SSBN or silo crew is bribed or seized by force? You do know that they're capable of autonomous launches for retalliatory strikes, right? And, unlike, say, "suitcase nukes", they're are quite a few, and you're not going to be able to lock 'em in a heavily secured warehouse anytime soon.
      • Hmmm..... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by kaladorn ( 514293 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @04:47PM (#3397385) Homepage Journal
        Whereas I don't entirely disagree with your point, I will say: 1) The only nuclear weapons ever delivered against a hostile nation were by plane. 2) That was a long time ago.

        You say it is quite easy to destroy a satellite interceptor system. That makes a number of assumptions such as their inability to defend themselves versus countermeasures, our inability to identify countermeasures launches and undertake alternate measures of our own, and the inability of said satellites to manouver. Also, it assumes we don't have a whacking lot of them up there, thus making degrading the system possible but not eliminating it. Right now, any and all opinion on how easy or hard this is all falls under the category speculation. No one has deployed an interceptor system and no one has demonstrated countermeasures to such a system. So we're all just shooting the breeze.

        As for the ease of deploying nuclear attacks other than ICBMs, I think you will find current developments in point, zone, and theatre defense will make plane and low-level missile attacks less effectual. And suitcase nukes, despite how allegedly easy they are to deploy, have NEVER been detonated in a population center or upon a military target to my knowledge. Perhaps this isn't as easy as you think?

        Not saying the money couldn't be spent elsewhere, nor that this isn't likely to be Pork Barrel city, but almost everything about space warfare is conjectural at this point. Only time and tactical deployment of some of these systems will truly prove the point.

        • And suitcase nukes, despite how allegedly easy they are to deploy, have NEVER been detonated in a population center or upon a military target to my knowledge. Perhaps this isn't as easy as you think?

          Being a physicist, I can't think of any difficulties...

          Assuming it is difficult is very dangerous. Do you really want to take that chance?

          However, I think the easiest of all would be to get the nuke on a ship and set it off when the ship is in harbor. Probably, it would be safest to assume that if somebody wants to nuke a US city, there is very little you can do to prevent it. Nothing.

          • I'll disagree. You're answering the question as a Physicist. That's not the way to look at it (entirely).

            Maybe our intelligence and covert operations agencies and the various monitoring agencies all (collectively) are more effective than we think. Or maybe the people who can get access to these things are more concerned with the impact of their actions and repercussions than we think.

            I don't think we should take the threat and treat it as a triviality, but _if_it_is_so_easy_, why_hasn't_it_happened?. The technology to do it is not all that new, and the US borders are quite penetrable especially from the Canadian side. Or so it *seems*. Maybe our 'men in black' do a better job than we suspect?

            As for the harbours, I'd bet almost every major harbour in the US now has an active harbour defense (many Canadian ones do with more coming on line) and they are making a real point to look at what is coming in. Won't stop everything, but might make this avenue of attack significantly less likely.

            And whatever the case, fearmongering, paranoia, and hysteria solve little. Yes the threat exists. It might kill a few thousand folks one day. OTOH, cancer, starvation, genocide are killing a hell of a lot of people worldwide today, so in perspective we shouldn't spend every $$$ we have to target these kind of threats... we've got other more pressing business. And life is and always has been full of risk. One good defence is not to piss off everyone else in the world....

    • WRT Global Thermonuclear War, the only way to win is not to play.

    • lacking an interceptor system) launched a retaliatory strike

      Why would the US not retaliate after an failed ICBM strike? While that bird is still flying the US will already begin its relatiation with or without an interceptor missile. The interceptor, if it ever works, might minimize some the damage (depending on the attack), but WWIII has just begun.
      • by wiredog ( 43288 )
        The theory is that a missile defense system would (depending on the number of incoming warheads, it'd have to be less than 20 or so) stop most or all of the missiles, thus eliminating the need for a launch on warning response. This would keep a small exchange from escalating to a massive one.
  • It looks like it's high time for a return of my favorite series... ;-) /9 782/salvage1.html
  • mabye someone should start thinking about developing a technology for picking up trash in orbit... or at least knocking it out of orbit selectively... sounds like well need it...
    • A few years back, someone created a web site based on the concept that after mankind moved into space, there were still homeless types who salvaged discarded satellite and rocket components and sold them for scrap.
      "The Bad Air and Space Museum", I think it was called...
      Is Dawin really an evolutionary OS []?
    • mabye someone should start thinking about developing a technology for picking up trash in orbit

      I wonder if you could make a solar-powered robot satellite that heads towards each piece of junk and snags it. It would vaporize the junk and feed it to an ion engine that propels it towards the next junk item. Kind of like Mr. Fusion without the fusion.

      I have no idea whether the minimal velocity changes between bits of junk would be too much to be powered by the junk itself. It would certainly require careful orbital plotting to work.

  • Everywhere man goes, they literaly trash the place. sad.
    • trashing = profitable

      cleaning = not profitable

      In a world where money is more valueble than people, quality of life, and experience... this is not too surprising.

  • not really (Score:4, Insightful)

    by delphin42 ( 556929 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:12PM (#3396661) Homepage
    "The author of the reporter alleges that programs like Star Wars and the like would basically turn LEO into a 'wasteland' for satellites for decades or even centuries."

    The article actually said that if other countries responded to programs like Star Wars by dumping tiny bits of space junk (gravel, marbles, or the like) to destroy satelites, causeing more space junk and destroying more satelites, etc, etc then the result would be a LEO wasteland. Putting a satellite in orbit doesn't necessarily increase space debris. Attacking satellites in orbit, on the other hand, does.
    • "Putting a satellite in orbit doesn't necessarily increase space debris"

      actually it does, the article at says

      "Small junk, some of it created by rocket explosions, can rip holes in a spacecraft or disable a satellite by causing electrical shorts that result from clouds of superheated gas, called plasma, that are sometimes generated in an impact."

      so just the process of putting a satellite in orbit creates junk travelling at 22,000 mph

    • if other countries responded ... by dumping tiny bits of space junk (gravel, marbles, or the like) ... the result would be a LEO wasteland

      I really like the idea of all the kosmonauts gathering together all their glassies and swirlies and launching them into space.

      Russian children are all forced to undergo the great marble-sacrifice, so their toys may be used to destroy the capitalist space weapons.

  • Reread, Hemos (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    NASA's Off ice for Orbital Debris will close in October, due to budget cuts, despite 10s of thousands of already existing debris

    That office tracks particles LESS THAN 1cm large in space.

    Anything bigger is tracked by another office in the agency, and funding hasn't been cut on that office.
    • Re:Reread, Hemos (Score:3, Informative)

      by skroz ( 7870 )
      That office being NORAD, located in Cheyenne mountain. So yeah, that one's covered budgetarily, methinks. You think they're going to pay for a door that big and let the thing close?
    • Particles that size can still cause significant damage; that's why NASA was tracking them. Read up on your low-gravity physics.

      Just because Senator Bumblehead thinks something is too small to hurt the shuttle doesn't make it so.

    • Thats truly sick, (I assume anything less than 1cm isn't damaging??) To have an NASA office that sits around and surveys dust.
      • Re:Reread, Hemos (Score:3, Insightful)

        by skroz ( 7870 )
        Your assumption is incorrect. A piece of dirt the size of a grain of sand could cripple the shuttle or any other orbiting body. Bullets (ok, small ones) are right around the 1 cubic centimeter range, and they kill people travelling only around 700 miles an hour. These pieces of debris are travelling in excess of 15000 miles per hour; they'll punch a hole through lots of things. Heat shielding, windows, astronauts...
        • this: Yes a bullet moving 15000 mph could do some damage (to the limit of the materials in the bullet). But isn't the shuttle (in the same orbit) moving at the same (or near same) speed, ergo no real differential?

          If so, isn't the danger window then only entering or leaving orbit, or changing orbit because of the delta vee between currently orbiting debris and the shuttle?

          Or am I missing something fundamental about how these debris are a menace?
          • Well if its travelling in the opposite orbit direction you are. WOW! and while I believe most all orbits travel west to east, you can have an orbit with many tilts and when where you cross the equator many of these orbits will cross, possibly at 90 degress, having two objects traveling that face at a 90 degree angle, thats dangerious. Not to mention trying to merge into traffic at 700 miles an hour! :)
            • Thanks. I hadn't considered that Polar orbits will cross Equatorial ones in a rather ugly fashion. Yeah, no doubt about it.... you'd really want to time that one right.... a T-bone at 15K mph would leave a fair sized dent... "That's gotta hurt"...
  • For the military, why would this be a problem? Not every country has the radar network and detection equipment necessary to safely avoid this minefield of satellite debris. The kill ratio would still be unbelievably high, but in a war situation, confusing the playing ground with lots of tiny kill vehicles would be sure to raise hell with the opponents space platforms.

    This would play badly for humans in space, for sure... I'm not saying this is a good thing, only that it could be leveraged by a defensive or antagonistic military force. Drop a few marbles in an orbit liable to intersect a KH satellite, and whammo, less communication bandwidth over afghanistan.
  • And the wonderful part is that NASA's Off ice for Orbital Debris will close in October, due to budget cuts, despite 10s of thousands of already existing debris.

    Maybe I'm a bit out of touch, but this seems like a REALLY bad idea to me. I mean shouldn't SOMEBODY be tracking all that junk?

    • The US Air Force Space Command, and the US Naval Space Command do track space junk.

      The size of objects they track is around 4 inches diameter.
      That's the un-classified version, I'm sure they can track smaller items.
    • Great idea! Why don't you (notice I said "you" and not "the Government" because I see you are a libertarian) just write a nifty lil' number-cruncher that runs behind a screen saver and tracks a finite set of space junk particles. If you aren't a coder, could you at least provide the $$$ or the organization skillz to make this a sourceforge project (imagine: The server could run on some *n?x O/S so we won't lose all of our satellites every time someone gets a BSOD, but the particle matrix could be distributed to Win clients for greater coverage. Do you live in Europe? Maybe it could be 100% metric so we could avoid the rare problems that seem to plague NASA in the rightist media.

  • The page does not seem to exists on CNN anymore. At least I could not find it on CNN or via Google in a 5 min search.
  • Spacewalking
  • This may not hurt us, but later generations will have one fat pickle on their hands. It's ironic that our government was considering opening up Anwar to oil drilling just in case, but won't take steps to lessen space debris. Space travel will be one of the biggest industries we've ever seen. We should do something to help it blossom. Maybe we should tell the higher-ups that there is oil on the moon. HUGE amounts of it filling the center like a big truffle. Then we'd have efficient space travel and a clean LEO in like, 24 hours.

    • Your assumption that space travel will be a huge industry assumes:
      1) There is any economic or political or military benefit to a manned presence
      2) The problems (risks) of space travel are overcome

      In both cases, you are talking about non-trivial cases.

      If UberCorps can't even find a way to make wireless or broadband pay off, then space is so far from being viable economically that it isn't funny. And as for tourism.... if a trip to orbit eats up a day or two, subjects me to multiple gravities of acceleration and has me vomiting in zero-G, plus exposes me to other health risks and other risks to life and limb (not all of us are astronaut material boys and girls!), then am I real likely to want to shell out $20K or more (assuming super cheap space transport) for it? I mean people other than us few Star Wars junkies?

      I don't think most of us will see affordable space tourism or economic exploitation of space within our lifetimes. I'd imagine the former is at least 40-75 years away, and the latter at least as long in any kind of large scale fasion.

      But it is nice to sit around and daydream about it, just like the guys in the 50s who predicted we'd be living on moon cities by 2000.... and about as likely....
  • Yup... Space pollution began in earnest in 1961 when the Westford needles program INTENTIONALLY launched hundreds of thousands of short wires into Low Earth Orbit. It was an attempt to build a passive antenna for communication.

    Didn't work, but we still have lots of orbiting bits of wire from the Kennedy era.
    • Wait. If Westford Needles put up that much debris in 1961 (wasn't it '63?), then doesn't that argue against the threat of a debris cloud cutting off access to space? After all, we've been operating plenty of spacecraft in LEO all these years while the Westford junk has been up there.
      • Actually, it looks like one of the cannisters that failed to deploy in the 60s did either deploy or get hit by something and pop open more than 20 years later.

        It'd be interesting to ask the LDEF and the Shuttle people if they've found any West Ford needles (or evidence of them) stuck in any of their gear...
  • by kbonin ( 58917 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:21PM (#3396753) Homepage
    It should be noted that NORAD currently does a great deal of the work in this field, possibly making NASA's role redundant. I couldn't find a direct NORAD link, but here's one of their subcontractors [] that mentions they do some of the actual work at NORAD.

    There are also a number of reports of the shuttle having to maneuver away from debris, such as here [], its worth noting that the warning came from "U.S. Space Command", i.e. NORAD, not NASA's orbital debris office.

    So some NASA PHB may think that NORAD's tracking is sufficient, and the money is better spent keeping the billion dollar dinosaur shuttle program flying...

    • oops, posted too soon. NORAD only tracks debris over 10cm, whereas NASA's program tracks everything else.

      I'd bet this funding will be restored, some PHB did as bad a job checking facts as I did... :)
      • Actually, I know someone who was doing research on this stuff using the radar systems out at Goldstone tracking station. Basically, you use two antennas - one transmitting a beam, the other pointing at some volumetric cross-section of that beam. The echo from stuff goimg through the beam gets detected by the other antenna, and you get phase information based upon the initial signal and the moving object's trajectory.

        The analog is shining a flashlight up into the dark and watching the light hitting dust motes.
        You can see very small stuff this way.

        And there's a lot more of it up there than you might think.

        The hazard, of course, is that if you run into some tiny fleck of crap that's in orbit, you may well be in trouble. Now, if it's in the same orbit as you (or nearly the same), you're OK, since the relative velocity is low. But if you're headed in the opposite orbit (worst case), you've got a very hgh energy kinetic weapon that will probably blow right through you... consider that a powerful rifle gives a bullet a muzzle velocity on the order of 4 k ft/sec, while orbital velocity is on the order of 25.5 k ft/sec (sorry for the US units, but you get the point). Since energy goes with the square of the velocity, you're looking at one wicked bullet, even if it is a lightweight fleck of paint!

        And historically, we've been pretty cavalier about spewing stuff around up there. Do a google search on the West Ford experiment, for example...
    • you know, that report is slightly unsettling in some ways.

      What was expected to be a routine shuttle departure took on an uncharacteristic air late Friday when NASA mission managers scrambled to put together a plan to dodge the inbound chunk of Russian space junk

      so the International Space Station was going to possibly be struck by a 20 foot long piece of metal travelling at 25 times the speed of sound, but was moved successfully because the shuttle happened to be up there at the time. They discovered the possible collision 2-3 days before it was going to happen...

      Sounds to me that they were very lucky to have had the shuttle up there, if that's all the warning they can give, what will happen when a shuttle is not up in space and a threat is discovered?
  • Yes, they track things less than 1 CM, but if I went up, I'd be hoping they knew where it all ways- space debris travels at hundreds of miles an hour and could cous a tremendous amount of damage to any space craft it hits.
  • How long does it take for LEO orbits to degrade?

    Eventually, would'nt this junk just fall into the atmosphere and burn up?
    • there was a study done a bit ago. the earth atmosphere actualy expands from time to time and when it does, it pulls in some LEO Garbage. now, if that is a significant amount or not, I don't know, but its somthing.
      • by jafac ( 1449 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @04:18PM (#3397198) Homepage
        This is actually one of the reasons WHY LEO was chosen as the place for the ISS. It's "cleaner" space.

        The biggest threat (imo) is from polar-launched satellites (typically military surveillance), which produce debris which typically crosses the other orbits more frequently. Launch a satellite in a normal orbit, and all the space debris created will be generally moving in a similar orbit at a similar velocity. 17-20,000 mph. No space object is going to encounter another space object at 20,000mph because it's all going pretty much the same speed in the same direction at that altitude. Anything moving faster is going to gain altitude, and anything moving slower is going to lose altitude. It's the polar orbits that produce the danger.
        • That's one of the most useful explanations of the danger I've seen yet. Kind of like the old Hot Wheels Criss-Cross-Crash track. Things moving in the same difference at the same speed are no threat, but junk crossing fast on an oblique course can really ruin your day. Merci buckets for the good post!
    • Depends exactly where in LEO it is, and the size of the object. The higher you are in the exosphere, the lower the drag. The larger shape you present, the higher the drag. If you have a very large piece in a relativly low orbit, the answer seems to be about 5 years []. For smaller objects, in higher orbits, it will probably be decades or centuries.
      • It's not the size, it's the ratio of surface area to mass. A high surface area to mass ratio will lose energy and come down faster. Smaller objects (in general) have a lot of surface area for their mass, and so will come down quicker.
  • "And the wonderful part is that NASA's Off ice for Orbital Debris will close in October, due to budget cuts, despite 10s of thousands of already existing debris"

    NORAD and Space Command will most likely continue tracking debris.
  • To the AeroGel solution? create a gigantic (1KM square) "sponge" to sweep up the crap and then deorbit into a nice fireball?

    I remember hearing about that back in 1996-1997 on Beyond2000 on Discovery... a show that was the best they ever made and cancelled... Oh boy more fish/animal/cop shows.... yay...
  • by tarsi210 ( 70325 ) <nathan&nathanpralle,com> on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:32PM (#3396844) Homepage Journal
    From the FAQ on the NASA Site:
    8). Does the U.S. Space Shuttle have to dodge orbital debris?
    Whenever a Space Shuttle is in orbit, the U.S. Space Command regularly examines the trajectories of orbital debris to identify possible close encounters. If another object is projected to come within a few kilometers of the Space Shuttle, the Space Shuttle will normally maneuver away from the object, even though the chances of a collision are only approximately 1 in 100,000. This occurs infrequently, about once every year or two.

    This seems to me to be a pretty small problem in the greater scheme of things, and if the Space Shuttle only has to dodge once or twice a year, we're doing pretty good so far.

    Of course, the point raised by NASA is just that we're doing ok provided that we continue to be aware of space junk and create our rockets and spacecraft and satellites in such manners as to reduce and/or prevent space debris. If the office closes, likely they'll keep someone at a radar somewhere to prevent the Shuttle and ISS and such from whacking a random chunk of hardware.
  • This again? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sunking2 ( 521698 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:35PM (#3396867)
    Stop being paranoid. You are far more likely to be run over by a stampeding elephant outside your house than you currently are of being struck by space debris (assuming you were in space).

    If you could collect all of the crap floating around in in orbit it probably wouldn't even fill a small landfill. You drive around in a car don't you? Rush hour traffic is a tad more congested than orbit is or will be in the distant future.

    Those are great scary little pictures that they put up showing all the garbage forming a ring around the Earth. Of course those dots are probably 1000000 times larger than they are in real life, but they do a good job of scaring people.

    Naturally these things need to be tracked but only for determining new orbits that need to be taken. By the time a cleanup is really needed technology will be able to present a viable solution. I don't see the point in spending millions/billions a year trying to solve it now and it certainly isn't worth losing sleep over.
  • Three points here.

    1. I was chairing an AAAS conference in Washington on Moving Industry Into Space, in January of 1982, and only 2 of the 5 speakers had shown up at 10 minutes before the start of the 3 hour session. The third was delayed in transit and the forth cancelled because both transponders had failed the night before on the communications satellite that was his business. The fifth turned out to be speaking at a conference in Europe and had not even told me he would not be coming.

    Sitting in the second row was someone I had never met but thought I recognized. I introduced mself, confirmed that he was whom I though he was, explained the situation and asked if he would speak. He agreed and gave a 15 minute adlib on the need for and value of a garbage collection business to clean up Low Earth Orbit. His name was Dr. Isaac Asimov. So, this is not a new issue.

    2. Years ago I studied the opportunities for space commecialization and came to the conclusion that Communications Satellites (given to us by Arthur C. Clarke, no patent applied for) and LEO Tourism were the only two that were practical in the forseeable future.

    Power transmission and manufacturing of pharmaceutical, etc have been talked about and even tried, but, much as I'd like to see them happen, they don't seem practical. Communications and Tourism still seem to be the only things with commerial potential for LEO.

    If NASA stops tracking the garbage, FUD will keep most people from considering a trip to LEO, even when the costs come down somewhat.

    3. NASA has never wanted competition. When they submitted the original tender for the original (post Skylab) Space Station, one of the firm provisions was that all items had to be transported via their Space Shuttle. Space is theirs and theirs alone. All others are NOT WELCOME.

    Twenty years ago I submitted a proposal to them that would give them a space station with 25,000 cubic foot of 'shirtsleeve living room', using only 2 Shuttle Launches. The "artist's sketch" (actually, an acrylic) still hangs on my wall and is dated 1982. I'm not expecting a call any time soon. When I tried to pay NASA to launch a "proof of concept", I was told, "We are not ready yet. Maybe some time in the future."
    • #3 - Ah, the idea that I have seen in several SF stories. Instead of tossing the fuel tank so that it burns up, empty, clean and pressurize it to serve as additional space. I really like this idea. Ultimate in recycling.... we already paid to get it to where it is, why the heck should we throw it away. If not now, then later. Tether them to the ISS (which should have kept the name "Freedom", but apparently the name would have offended some of our foreign partners (though why we would want to partner with people who find freedom an offensive word I have no idea)) and use them sometime in the future. Not like it would have cost any extra.
  • bunk (Score:4, Interesting)

    by medcalf ( 68293 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @03:52PM (#3396998) Homepage
    I read the article this morning as well, and it was bunk.

    Let's say that missiles are inbound to the US. Right now, LEO would be fine, and the US would be toast. So let's say that the US builds a strategic ABM system - mostly if not completely land-based on the interceptor side - which can take out a warhead immediately prior to deorbit. Now let's say that the incoming missiles have countermeasures, so that they are spreading even more junk around. Well, the best possible result is that the ABM system is still capable of taking out the incoming warheads, preventing major US cities from becoming piles of radioactive debris. But LEO is now junked up? So what? It's preferable that we have to figure out how to clean up LEO - or even that we lose the use of LEO - than that we lose even one city. Moreover, that debris is on a path to deorbit quickly, so there is not even a likelihood of cluttering up LEO for a long period of time.

    Now let's take the other scenario presented: someone decides to deny LEO by spreading large amounts of gravel or similar in order to take out a space-based weapons platform. Any nation capable of doing that is also somewhat dependent on LEO and would thus be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. On top of that, if the intent is to take out a space-based defense in order to let the missiles through, wouldn't you want to do that in such a way that you didn't prevent the missiles from getting through? (Gravel sufficient to make LEO a "wasteland" is also sufficient to block practical use of ICBMs and probably also IRBMs, MRBMs and SLBMs.)

    Bunk, I tell you. Total bunk.
  • ...using lunar power to create neutrino oscillations to destroy the junk... see, /. has all the answers...
  • "Hello, ladies and gentlemen. We've now entered Low Earth Orbit, and our pilot, Roberto, is just adjusting the horizontal lift for your comfort. You may soon order drinks from the steward once the pilot has given the proper signal. Outside your window on your left you'll see the- OH MY GOD!! NOOOOOOO!"
  • So was this article pulled because it pointed out that anyone with the ability to launch a big enough rocket could potentially eliminate a large portion of the US military's advantage?

    Just get an idea of the rough trajectory of LEO spy satellites, shoot up a rocket at the right moment, and blow up a modest charge to spray BB's into a wide swath of space.

    Figure if you could launch just 1 million BB's and spread them out with a velocity of maybe just 60km/hr - creating a sphere 2km across in one minute, with a surface area of 12MsqMeter, you've got 1 BB for every 12sq meters, and if the satellite goes through both sides of the sphere and has a profile of just 4sq meters, you've got a 2/3 chance of holing it, maybe a 1/3 chance of severe damage via internal spray of debris over sensitive components.

    And if you're a bit more sophisticated, you could launch those BB's into orbit. It might take days or weeks - but with that much new debris added to the same rough orbital altitude as a spy-sat, the chances of an encounter are pretty good.

    Yep, I'd be worried about Iraq getting this bright idea - except after they analyzed their last war and the sort of tricks that the Yugoslavians played on us, I'd bet they've already come up with it.

    I'd also hope the US is busily launching hardened spy satellites with enough internal armor and redundancy to take a couple of hits.

    It'll probably mean the end of Commercial use of Space if they really go at it - the insurance rates for launches will be too high. Another good thing brought to you by the fine foreign entanglement folks in Washington. I sure wouldn't want to be on the sitting station - I mean space duck - I mean space station if/when Bush decides to go into Iraq.

  • by xmod2 ( 314264 )
    The reason the office was closed is that their previous attempts to clean up had failed.

    Their plan involved using nanoships to blast the debris away. Unfortunately whenever they shot them, they broke into two smaller pieces. NASA claims that difficult controls and the offices inability to use hyperspace to evade debris were two of the main reasons for failure.
  • The recent article [] says,

    NASA estimates there are 4 million pounds of junk orbiting Earth. More than half the impacting debris is manmade

    This implies that 40% or so of the debris in orbit is of natural origin.

    Which would mean that Earth has hundreds or thousands of tiny natural satellites (moons) that they never taught me about in school.

    Is this just simple misreporting? Or does Earth have little moons that went undiscovered until NASA started tracking space debris?
    • They're probably talking about small (i.e. a few centimeters) asteroids which were caught by the earth's gravity well.
      So nothing exciting to see here, especially since the current orbiting asteroids will burn up in a few years and more come in every minute. Any celestial body has a lot of junk flying around it.
    • I wouldn't be surprised to see that that's the case... I think that a couple of million pounds a day falls to the earth as space dust/micrometeors, etc. Thing is that a lot of the man-made stuff is likely to be on the larger end of the scale... Even something like a dropped wrench is likely larger than much of the space dust that hits the earth daily.
  • Cleanup (Score:3, Interesting)

    by augustz ( 18082 ) on Tuesday April 23, 2002 @04:48PM (#3397392) Homepage
    It seems that having high powered lasers in space would be great for a space-junk cleanup. Turn the beam to wide angle, fire it up, and incinerate or knock down (heat up one side of an item, let it outgass on that side and it may go down) the little bits... voila, clean space.

    And the military would justify this by calling it weapons testing.

    - AZ
  • dudes? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Che Guevarra ( 85906 )

    Che: "Couldn't you just launch a bunch of huge super powerful magnets into orbit to suck up all that debris? I mean, wouldn't a magnet have a really powerful effect on all those little metal bits in a vacuum?"

    Che's roommate: "dude, are you posting on slashdot stoned again?"

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