Friday, September 02, 2011

What's that in the sky? Is it a bird...a bee...or space debris?

There are things on this planet that worry me. Not the kind of worry that keeps me up nights but concern me nonetheless. My latest worry is space debris and whether it will stay up in the sky.

I'm not the only one since U.S. scientists have warned NASA that the orbiting space junk situation is getting serious. I mean - really serious. A report issued by the National Research Council indicates that debris could cause fatal leaks or destroy valuable sattelites. Furthermore, the Council is calling for international regulations to limit junk and conduct more research into the possibility of launching large magenetic nets or giant umbrellas. Good idea although perhaps a bit late.

So let's look at these...unique ideas and their viability, at least from my vantage point.

What type of magnetic nets are we talking about and how would they be launched? How would the magnets be propelled around planet earth to scoop up the debris? If magnets and presumably magnetic force is involved, the debris at least in theory, would stick to the magnet(s). So if this works, we could inevitably have an enormous collection/blob of space debris sticking to each other while orbiting the universe. What happens, say, if it gets too heavy and falls earth-ward? Where would it land and more importantly, on whom would it land?

The other alternative, the umbrella has me puzzled. An umbrella as we know it flips open and is a protection against rain or snow or whatever. This would have to be one huge umbrella to be used against floating debris and what of the debris that is already floating around? Or...perhaps - just speculation on my part - a strong magnet first attracts the space debris after which a gigantic/monster of an umbrella opens up to protect the earth from descending junk. That's what it comes down to in the end: space junk.

Thinking further, perhaps we ordinary folk should offer the experts some suggestions. We can't due any worse
- a big - really big - remote battery-controlled vacuum cleaner
- pass on the assignment to Santa, who could make a diversionary pickup on his way delivering toys on Christmas Eve

I dunno but I'm sure people reading this could provide some ideas how to retrieve space junk. Pass them along and share them, people!

Meanwhile, these are some of the solutions that experts have come up with.

In as far as cleanp-up efforts are concerned, in 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite weapon test which destroyed a decommissioned weather satellite, smashing the object into 150,000 pieces larger than 1cm. Two years later, two satellites - one defunct and one active - crashed in orbit, creating even more debris. I dunno...

There are presently 2,000 pieces of debris large enough to track from the ground, but smaller objects could still cause serious damage. Kind of makes one want to carry an umbrella and look skywards, no?

There have been some near-misses with space debris narrowly missing the space station forcing its six crew to go to their escape capsules and prepare for an emergency evacuation back to Earth.

Even more scary is that the report makes no recommendations about how to clean up the field of debris, however but an earlier study refers to the Pentagon's science think-tank, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

The Darpa report, dubbed "Catcher's Mitt", suggested a range of technologies, including harpoons, nets and an umbrella-shaped device that would sweep up the debris. Harpoons? One miss and... The ultimate aim is to push the debris further towards the earth where it would burn up, or into a higher but safer orbit. Does this worry you as much as it worries me?

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