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Space is where our future is - Trips to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Most people would think that aside from a few meteors, asteroids, planets, comets and stars there is little else to stand in our way. But, over the last 55 years as humans have been venturing out in space they have left so many debris that scientists are now concerned that if we don't do something to clean it up, we may all be in mortal danger.
The first piece of space junk was created by mistake in 1964, when the connection with the American satellite Vanguard 1 was lost. However, since it kept rotating around the earth's orbit without any consequences, scientists became increasingly comfortable abandoning things that had outlived their use.
According to NASA, there are currently over 500,000 pieces of man-made trash orbiting the earth at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour. The debris vary from tiny flecks of paint chipped off of rockets to huge satellites and fuel tanks and even, odd items like the million dollar tool kit that NASA astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn Piper lost, whilst on a space walk.
While something even as small as a pencil can effect a rocket traveling at extremely high speeds, the real danger is that all this rotating junk collides with each other and breaks into debris which fall back to earth or, as has been recently the case the whole item gets out of orbit, and free falls down.
Though most pieces get burnt by the atmosphere upon re-entry, that is not always the case. In 1997, a main propellant tank from the Delta 2 plunged to earth and landed in Georgetown, Texas, almost intact. It weighed 550lbs and created a 30ft. crater.
Since then, many other pieces of debris have made their way back down, including the recent two - NASA's 6.5 ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite and Germany's ROSAT. Though we have been fortunate so far in that the debris have ended up in sparsely populated areas or in the ocean, this may not always be the case. We therefore have to start thinking about cleaning things up soon. Fortunately, there are several initiatives in the works.
One of the most encouraging ideas is constructing a space shuttle to go fetch the trash. Currently being developed by US-based Star Technology and Research, the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator is being designed such that it grabs space junk in a net and pulls it in. Once the junk has been collected, it can either be tossed toward the remote oceans of the South Pacific, placed on a trajectory such that it burns up during re-entry or, recycled in Space to create raw materials to build future orbiting stations or even satellites. In order to ensure that the junk-capturing vehicle will last for a long time and to keep costs low, it will be designed to get power from the sun and the earth's magnetic force.
Swiss scientists are also working on an $11 million USD janitor satellite called Clean Space. This one is being designed such that it will simply grab the items off the orbit and toss them back towards earth in such a way that they will (hopefully) burn up as they re-enter the earth's atmosphere.
Besides the desire to clean up Space, scientists have also realized that this 'junk' is made up of items that can be re-used for other Space programs - This is definitely an added incentive to do something. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that we have to take action sooner than later to prevent a major catastrophe caused by yet another act of human carelessness, from happening.
Resources: NASA.gov, howstuffworks.com, dailymail.co.uk,