Rubbish, junk, debris and garbage are not words typically associated with space, we think of it as vast and clean, but space junk is making a big mess of it, and it is not that easy to clean up. Especially because there are 10 million pieces of rubbish, floating around out there.
Among the 10 million pieces of space junk are around 32 nuclear reactors, and the cheerfully round Vanguard I, America’s second satellite and the oldest space debris, dating back to 1958. Space has some normal rubbish as well, some 200 bags of rubbish currently are making their orbit. How did they get there? The answer is that during the first ten years of the Mir space station they decided to simply ‘throw out the trash,’ hoping they would fall to earth and burn up. This has yet to happen.
Difficulties also arise because of speed, the debris can start move rapidly without all of that annoying air slowing them down. During the first American space walk in 1965, Astronaut Edward White managed to ‘misplace’ his glove in empty space. The glove was soon lapping the Earth at speeds of 28,000 kilometres per hour, making it the most dangerous item of clothing in history. Other space debris travels at such speeds that they can pass straight through 50mm of steel. Luckily the glove can’t, after one month the glove burnt up in the atmosphere leaving no trace, which was rather handy.
Another problem presents itself too, space debris makes space debris, especially when you have chunks larger than a bus. This chunk was also shaped like a satellite, in 2009, also it was out of control. In this first of cases, the defunct Russian Kosmos 2251 satellite collided with the much newer and more valuable Iridium 33. As well as annoying some Americans the small collision took place at 35000kmph, disembowelling both satellites and producing thousands of satellite-chunks which have now formed a pair of garbage rings around our planet, in a rather rubbish replica of Saturn’s splendour. Since this first of active satellite collisions in the amount of space debris increased massively. Now it is more likely than ever that satellites will be destroyed by detrimental detritus.
To stop this dastardly case of cosmic littering a big litter-pick has been suggested. Instead of employing people who are susceptible to death, giant balloons have been suggested. Dr. Kristen Gates proposed the Gossamer Orbit Lowering Device, GOLD. It is 0% gold and 100% balloon. The idea is that a suitcase sized object is sent into space and latches onto a satellite with the help of an orbital robot. Then it becomes a balloon, the ‘suitcase’ opens and the balloon fills up with helium, inflating until it is the size of a sports stadium. This large balloon would slow down the satellite by hitting the rare gas particles in space, letting the satellite drop to earth and burn. It is hoped that all satellites launched in future will simply come with their own GOLD balloon at launch. Simple and effective perhaps, surprisingly it isn’t even the only balloon-based-space-litter-collection-proposal.
One other takes a broader approach and will tackle the real problem, the fragment, the screws, specks of paint and Chinese satellite chunks that one finds in space. A hot air balloon of sorts would be launched into space, flying 35,000 kilometres skywards. This large balloon would start large and swell as it rises, coming to dwarf any stadium known to man. Made of a light but tough material woven in many layers the balloon would simply be hit by space junk, some small things would pass through and others would bounce off. If possible the balloon would be made of some material resistant to punctures such as Kevlar fibres. The balloon would collect its litter, slowly wobbling after every impact, before itself coming back down to earth.
Perhaps one day an army of balloons shall patrol our space, clearing up after us like a fussing parent. For now the skies fill with their junk, one day they may blot out the sun and trap us on this terraqueous globe until the sun grows to swallow us whole in 4.5 billion years time. The junkosphere would tear down any and all ships attempting to pass through into the clean beyond. Then again, the key with space is in the name, there is still plenty of space left in ‘space.’ For now the sun and moon are visible and the junkosphere is a rubbish name. With officials saying that space junk is at a tipping point, it would not be a bad thing to launch some balloons and clean up our act.