About 30,000 objects are moving at full speed in near-Earth orbit. This is not just a problem of space.

(CNN) — There was a time when looking at the night sky was an escape from the man-made chaos of the Earth.

Not now.

Nearly 70 years after Sputnik’s launch, there are so many machines flying through space that astronomers fear their light pollution will soon make it impossible to study other galaxies with ground-based telescopes.

There’s also space junk: about 30,000 objects larger than a football. softball They fly a few hundred kilometers above the earth, ten times faster than a bullet.

And after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used high-flying aircraft to sample the stratosphere for the first time in history, new scientific data suggests that the space race may benefit from measuring the sky using measurable methods. and is changing in potentially harmful ways. Consequences on the ozone layer and Earth’s climate.

“We can see the imprint of human space traffic in stratospheric aerosols,” says Troy Thornberry, a research physicist at NOAA’s Chemistry Laboratory. “We’re looking at adding a lot of material to the stratosphere that has never been there before, as well as larger masses of material that we launch into space.”

According to the study, 10% of the particles in the upper atmosphere now consist of metal fragments from rockets or satellites that fall out of orbit and burn up. As humanity becomes increasingly dependent on information from the sky, the report predicts that in the coming decades man-made debris will make up 50% of stratospheric aerosols, the amount naturally created by the galaxy. Will be equal to.

While it’s unclear how this will affect the ozone layer—and a complex climate system already in crisis—the commercial switch from solid rocket boosters on NASA’s space shuttles to kerosene, which fuels rockets, SpaceX has announced each Tons of new fossil fuel emissions are added with launch, while older satellites create clouds of debris as they exit orbit.

“We’re talking about a constellation of thousands of satellites, each weighing a ton or more, and when they fall they act like meteorites,” Thornberry told CNN.

According to the tracking site Orbiting Now, there are more than 8,300 satellites currently in orbit, and predictions about how many of them will soon join vary wildly.

More than 300 commercial and government entities have announced plans to launch 478,000 satellites by 2030. The US Government Accountability Office predicts that 58,000 satellites will be launched over the next six years. Other analysts have recently estimated the number of satellites reaching orbit to be closer to 20,000.

But even the lowest estimates would have been unimaginable after Neil Armstrong’s astonishing speed. Apollo 17’s “Blue Marble” photo in 1972 may have inspired Earth Day, but few considered the orbital debris it created until 1979, when NASA scientist Donald Kessler published “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: A Published a paper titled “Formation of the Debris Belt”. ,

Since then, “Kessler syndrome,” described with appropriate mystery in the 2013 film “Gravity,” has been shorthand for the industry’s concern that too much space traffic will create a vicious cycle of more debris. This will create even more conflicts until the launch becomes impossible.

In low Earth orbit, objects can collide at speeds of about 37,000 km/h, which is enough speed for even the smallest debris to break the windows of the International Space Station. In total, an estimated 100 million pencil-tip-sized pieces of artificial debris are orbiting, posing a major risk to doing business in space.

Rendering of Astroscale’s “On Closer Inspection” mission, which was launched Feb. 18 by aerospace company Rocket Lab. (Credit: Rocky Lab)

“Ten years ago, people thought our Founders were crazy for even talking about space junk,” Ron Lopez told CNN as he walked through the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. “Now you can’t go to a space conference without a panel or series of talks on space sustainability and the waste problem.”

Lopez is president of the U.S. subsidiary of Astroscale, a Japanese company that is competing for market share in the emerging field of orbital debris removal.

“In the gold rush, the people who made picks and shovels fared better than the prospectors,” he explains. “And in a sense, that’s exactly what we’re bringing to the market.”

Lopez admits they’re a long way from blowing up garbage trucks, orbiting recycling centers and having a “circular economy in space,” but in 2022, Astroscale will use a powerful magnet to capture a moving target launched into the same space. With used a satellite. 3 year mission.

“It was the first commercially funded spacecraft to demonstrate many of the technologies that will be needed to dock and rendezvous with other satellites,” he said. “It may be that we move them, refuel them or, in some cases, deorbit them to solve the waste problem.”

A second Astroscale mission, launched from New Zealand by aerospace company Rocket Lab on February 18, will take a closer look at the space debris. The satellite, called “On Closer Inspection”, will observe the activities of a rocket stage that was launched into low-Earth orbit in 2009. Astroscale’s mission will use cameras and sensors to study the rocket remains and figure out how to deorbit them.

But with the pollution crisis increasingly evident on land, sea, and now in space, one of the most symbolic launches from Sputnik is scheduled for this summer, when Japan and NASA scientists will launch the world’s first biodegradable satellite, which will be the main Made from form. Wood.

One small step…


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