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Rubbish is everywhere, even in space

Nowadays people managed to discard rubbish not only in the sea, air and ground, but also in space. For almost 60 years since the launch of the first satellite of the Earth, people happen to litter the near-earth space in such a manner that work in orbit poses a growing danger.

What is space rubbish?

All the man-made objects present in near-earth orbit, as well as their debris, the further use of which is not foreseen due to a malfunction is meant to be space rubbish. They no longer have practical application, but they pose a serious danger to orbiters, in particular those operated by man. Sometimes, if cosmic debris is large enough or contain a certain number of components representing a danger, they directly threaten the planet – this is due to the possibility of their uncontrolled de-orbit, partial combustion when falling through the atmosphere of our planet. The fall of such debris can seriously damage the infrastructure of settlements, production sites, important transportation hubs, etc.

The problem of clogging up space with garbage

Initially, the problem of rubbish accumulation in the outer space surrounding the Earth was posed as early as the middle of the twentieth century, when the USSR was preparing to launch the very first artificial vehicles. This problem became official on international level only in 1993 after Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations Secretary General, declared a speech about the impact of space programs on the environment.

In this speech, he particularly noted that this problem has an international, planetary scale: “We can’t say that the near-Earth space of a particular country is littering, the outer space of the entire planet is being littered, which negatively affects all states equally.”

The need to reduce the intensive contamination of near-Earth space by objects of technical origin becomes obvious if we consider the possible scenarios for which space exploration will take place in the future. There are many versions according to which, in the near future, the amount of debris in orbit will actively increase due to the “cascade effect”.

Cascade effect or Kessler’s syndrome is a theoretical scenario in which space debris around the Earth emerges from the clash of various objects, which may also be space debris. There is a kind of cunning “domino effect.” Two rather large objects clashing generate a huge number of new fragments. In turn, any of these fragments can bump into another object. Thus, a “chain reaction” of the emergence of more and more fragments is launched. If there are a lot of similar collisions, in view of the avalanche-like occurrence of new fragments, low near-earth orbits can become completely unsuitable for flights.

By 2055, the self-reproduction of such objects will bring serious problems to humanity. Therefore Jurgelevičius Algirdas, the vice-president of the Eastern European Association of the Greens, advices that ways to solve this cascade effect should be developed as soon as possible.

Who and how controls space rubbish

There are a huge number of various methods that allow to find orbital objects in near-Earth space. These methods are usually divided into two groups:

  • optical (using optical telescopes);
  • radar (using radio telescopes).

In addition, multifunctional space analysis tools and defense systems help to identify such objects. Tools that allow the observation of near-Earth space in the Soviet Union and the United States of America were developed in the middle of the last century. Similar developments are applied in many other countries, including the EU countries. In turn, there is a group of national-level programs designed to detect space objects and further eliminate debris. In order to coordinate the activities of such programs, a special international organization was created – Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IASDCC).

How much garbage is in space

In 2009, it was reported that in low earth orbit, at an altitude of up to two thousand kilometers, according to various estimates, there may be about 220 thousand man-made objects, the total mass of which reaches approximately 5 thousand tons. At the same time, by extrapolation, it was established that the number of such objects that exceed one centimeter in diameter reaches from 60 to 100 thousand. Moreover, only about ten percent of such fragments were found and cataloged.

In 2017, the traditional annual European Conference on Space Debris Issues was held. More than three hundred scientists from different parts of the world tried to determine effective methods to combat pollution of near-Earth space. At the end of the conference, the participants declared about the existence of about 750 thousand different fragments exceeding 1 cm (in cross section) and another 166 million fragments more than 1 mm.

According to the data of 2014, the Russian Federation is responsible for 39.7% of all space debris formed by mankind, the United States of America is second in terms of “productivity” (28.9%), and the People’s Republic of China is third (22.8% ). At the same time, all other countries brought into space only a little more than 8% of garbage.

How to clean up garbage in space

Universal methods of dealing with space debris with sufficient efficiency in practice do not yet exist. But due to the high relevance of this problem, the world community is actively developing the priority areas for its solution:

  1. Comprehensive surveillance of near-Earth space, especially geostationary orbits, as well as systematic cataloging of existing debris.
  2. The use of mathematical models for making predictions of the appearance of new wreckage, possible threats for upcoming flights and unexpected convergence of wreckage with the possibility of collision, as well as their uncontrolled fall to Earth.
  3. Development of methods to secure working spacecraft.
  4. The creation and early application of techniques that can reduce the contamination of near-Earth space.

At the moment, there are a great many ways to clean the Earth’s orbit from space debris, but, unfortunately, none of them is acceptable in terms of economic feasibility. Thats why the European Space Agency allows the following scenarios:

  • the seizure of debris using the network and their further transportation for disposal or burial orbit;
  • attaching to the object of a jet engine engaged in transportation;
  • the use of solar sails to transport massive objects;
  • debris removal from orbit by jet firing.

Debris in near-earth orbit represents a high danger to operational spacecraft, and as they become more and more every year, at some point the cosmos may be inaccessible to humanity. In this regard, the problem of the formation of space debris is one of the central in modern cosmonautics.