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The global problem that seems kind of made up, but isn't.
Every now and then, I’ll come across an article about some offbeat problem I’d only given a passing thought to before, that not only makes me realize how genuinely serious of an issue it is, but keeps me thinking about it for days on end.
Such a piece was recently written by my friend Haley Byrd Wilt over at The Dispatch. The topic of her essay: space junk.
Well, technically space debris.
Here, Haley explains both the issue and why it’s becoming a growing concern:
Space debris has built up over the past six decades, as old satellites and other spacecraft have become defunct or have collided to create millions of pieces of fast-moving debris orbiting the planet. And with a wave of new satellites being launched in recent years, many of them small and difficult to track, the odds of satellite collisions are increasing.
Debris in low Earth orbit circles the planet at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. Impacts at such exorbitant speeds can be devastating. Each piece of debris also has the potential to strike other objects in orbit and create more debris.
With each new debris-creating incident, such as Russia’s anti-satellite test, the orbital environment draws closer to what NASA scientists have warned about for decades: a catastrophic chain reaction that makes the destruction of satellites exponentially more likely and space activity vastly more hazardous.
Now, if you’re like me, the news that space junk can travel at up to 17,500mph dropped your jaw open and kept it there. (Actually, in my case, an Invisiline issue may have been partially to blame). Regardless, that’s insanely fast.
Russia’s recent “anti-satellite test,” that Haley’s referring to, involved the shooting down of one of its defunct satellites. The result: “a dangerous cloud of debris that will expand and remain in low Earth orbit for years to come.”
If this scenario sounds kind of familiar to you, that may be because it was the premise of the 2013 sci-fi film, Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock). I can’t think of a better PSA about the dangers of high-velocity space junk than the film’s opening scene:
So yeah, that’s probably the type of situation we’d like to avoid, not just for the sake of space-walking astronauts, but also for our active satellites, which let us communicate digitally, use GPS to navigate, and forecast the weather. And if we’re going to be sending national treasures like William Shatner up into space, it would certainly be a shame if those folks were taken out by runaway space garbage.
How much debris is currently up there? Haley has the ballpark answer:
Countries around the world today track the locations of pieces of space debris. It’s a tall order: The U.S. Space Surveillance Network currently tracks more than 27,000 objects, some being functional spacecraft, but most of which are debris. NASA estimates there are about 23,000 objects larger than a softball in orbit, and approximately 500,000 particles 0.4 inches in diameter or larger. The smaller objects are too difficult to track consistently.
That’s a lot of debris, people. And Haley lists numerous examples of serious collisions and near misses.
So, what can be done to help address the space junk problem?
Haley reports that there are only a couple of “removal mechanisms” that currently exist:
Today, some satellites at the end of their missions are either sent into a much higher orbit, known as a graveyard orbit, or they are directed back into Earth’s gravity well to burn up in the atmosphere.
Another seemingly obvious measure would be to stop shooting down satellites, but with countries always evaluating (and working to protect) their military and technological capabilities, I wouldn’t count on it happening. And that wouldn’t address the debris created from old, abandoned satellites and space vehicles crashing into each other.
So, I feel it is my duty, as a lifelong earthling who knows virtually nothing about outer-space beyond science fiction movies, to offer a solution: a giant space-magnet.
Hear me out.
We construct the giant space-magnet, launch it into orbit, control its speed and movements (to keep it clear of active satellites and space-crafts), allow it to collect metal debris for a few years, and then launch it into the sun (where it won’t latch onto unsuspecting extraterrestrial space-vehicles).
You’re welcome, world.
I’m sure NASA will be calling any day now requesting my consultation services, including on how to separate a giant magnet from a launch pad (I admit it’s a fair question).
Have a better idea for saving our orbit from space junk? Tell me about it in an email or in the comment section below.
New Blurb for “Restitution”
My upcoming book “Restitution” recently received a nice blurb from writer Jim Geraghty. Jim’s a senior political correspondent at National Review, where I’ve enjoyed his writing for years. He’s also the author of the “Dangerous Clique” thriller series, which you should definitely check out.
I might be writing about my long-weekend trip in a future newsletter. If so, here’s a little teaser...
Do you recognize this home, and can you tell me which fictional character lived there?
How about his famous neighbor behind the gated fence?
I’ll give you a hint: hippies aren’t welcome.
Obligatory Dog Shot
I was a late adopter of The White Stripes, the Detroit rock duo that rose to prominence in the early 2000s. But their unique garage sound, exemplified by their biggest hit “Seven Nation Army,” did eventually win me over.
Their Grammy award-winning album “Elephant” (which features “Seven Nation Army” along with several other great songs) was a commercial hit, and lead-singer Jack White (who’s continued on with a solo career) has been a bigger proponent of the vinyl revival than probably any other performer (which makes me like him even more).
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!