Waste from Space. What Goes Around Comes Around. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD.)
The 5th of Nov 2015 it was reported by the media that a mysterious black ball has fallen from the sky in the middle of a Spanish field. This situation has prompted speculation over its origin and raised several questions concerning the implications for the security of populated areas.
After goat farmers spotted the object, investigators from the Civil Guard immediately rushed to Calasparra, Murcia, and put the area under quarantine.
Independent researchers suggested the object may be a pressurised gas container which has fallen to Earth from space, according to El Pais.
Interestingly enough, this situation has brought to my attention a video published by NASA just the 13th of Nov, which solves any doubts over the origin of the black ball, and highlights the increasing relevance taken by the amount of waste debris being released for decades in Space.
Waste “in” space, Waste “from” space.
Satellites in orbit around Earth are used in many areas and disciplines, including space science, Earth observation, meteorology, climate research, telecommunication, navigation and human space exploration. They offer a unique resource for collecting scientific data, which lead to unrivalled possibilities for research and exploitation, both scientific and commercial.
However, in the past decades, with increasing space activities, a new and unexpected hazard has started to emerge: Space Debris.
All the space agencies are aware of this situation.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has an entire section on their web page dedicated to space debris.
The problem generated by space debris has already achieved the category of importance enough to organise Conferences treating this issue. The 25th April 2015 it was held the 6th European Conference on Space Debris, ESA/ESOC, at Darmstadt, Germany (press release).
The objective set was to discuss the latest findings, policy approaches and technical options to cope with the increasing risks of space debris. Special attention was put on debating active debris removal.
Human-made space objects result from about 4900 launches, as of 2012, conducted since the start of the space age. The majority of the catalogued objects, however, originate from in-orbit break-ups – more than 240 explosions – as well as fewer than 10 known collisions. According to 2012 American and European estimates, over 23 000 objects larger than 5-10 cm are orbiting Earth at typical speeds of 25 000 km/h.
The findings were presented in a press conference chaired by Heiner Klinkrad, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, and included senior space debris experts from the DLR German Aerospace Center, France’s CNES space agency, Italy’s ASI space agency, the UK Space Agency, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) and the International Academy of Astronautics (see names below). The programme runs about 90 mins.
These results were presented to over 350 worldwide participants representing almost all the major national space agencies, industry, governments, academia and research institutes.
Based on the press release from ESA, there was wide agreement that the continuing growth in space debris poses an increasing threat to economically and scientifically vital orbital regions.
What goes around comes around.
It takes my attention that most relevance is given into addressing the issue of space debris from the point of view of protecting space “as a valuable resource for our critical satellite infrastructure”. And yet, even thought I find it as a fair justification, and based on the recent events described at the beginning of this post, I miss more info in addressing the implications from having new stronger and more durable materials as part of objects potentially falling over populated areas.
The development of new materials, stronger, lighter and more durable, keeps moving forward thanks to the effort invested in space engineering. But also, creates ammo to be used by gravity. And at the end of the day, even considering that the majority of the debris disintegrates entering the atmosphere, the more goes around, the higher is the probability of getting “some” coming around. And we are being lucky so far.
Which administration would take responsibility from having people or material (your car, house, etc) damaged from falling debris?
Just a thought.