After days of excitement, concern, and wonder about where China’s Tiangong-1 would land as it fell towards the Earth’s surface, the space lab made a rather quiet return on Sunday evening. Most of China’s space project burned before it reached the southern Pacific Ocean and left debris floating on the water’s surface. There may have been some big pieces that fell, but those would have sunk on impact and are now sitting on the ocean floor.
For the most part, satellites, space labs, and other space exploration tools have a controlled entry back to Earth. China claims they had control of Tiangong-1, but space professionals disagree. This raises concern about how many uncontrolled re-entries to the earth the future holds and what are the potential dangers the speeding pieces of junk can cause. Instead of randomly falling from the sky, where is this retired space equipment supposed to go, if it doesn’t burn up, when it reaches the Earth’s surface?
The Space Graveyard
After any type of space apparatus has come to the end of it’s life, the owners of the object are responsible for its disposal. There is a spot that NASA refers to as “pretty much the farthest place from any human civilization you can find.” That place is called the space graveyard.
Point Nemo is roughly 1500 miles from any land mass and is in the Pacific Ocean. From 1971 to 2015, an estimated 260 space units have been disposed of there. The space graveyard offers a safe place for countries to crash their space objects, dispose of them 2.5 miles below the Pacific Ocean, and not hit anything or anyone in the process.
Should anyone ever visit the space graveyard, it is doubtful they would see spacecrafts sitting around the ocean floor. Any object re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere Is in for a destructive endeavor. Heat generated from the high-speed re-entry is intense enough to burn metal. Because of this, the space graveyard is most likely littered with small remnants of the once grand pieces of space exploration history.
Pieces of space equipment, old satellites for example, eventually outlive their usefulness. In cases that the satellites aren’t guided to the space graveyard, they are sent deep into space into the graveyard orbit.
When launched, satellites and other space equipment have enough fuel for the owners to guide them to their designated placement. After in place, the areas using fuel are shut down to conserve what little is left for the units end of life. At end of life, the unit is fired back up and the remaining fuel is used to guide it to the graveyard orbit far away from any still functioning equipment.
Meteorological, television, and global monitoring satellites are among the most common sent into the graveyard orbit.
The Best Laid Plans……
The problem is there is so much junk in the graveyard orbit, collisions happen, and pieces are forced back towards Earth. These pieces have the potential to damage working space equipment or re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and cause issues if they reach the ground.
The greatest concern scientist have is with the space junk above us. Space is so overrun with man-made waste that collisions with expensive and vital satellites is a great fear. We are using and rely on the internet more than ever. If the right satellite suffers damage from space debris, society could be sent into chaos for an undetermined amount of time.
Estimations are nearly 200 million pieces of debris are orbiting the Earth. Even with technology at the point it is, professionals can only track where roughly 22,000 of the pieces are. That leaves a lot to chance for the nearly $900 billion worth of space infrastructure that could be damaged or knocked offline if hit by the untracked debris.
Because of the potential fallout of damaged space equipment, scientists and researchers are working at a fever pace to develop technology to better track the accumulating space junk. Ben Greene, the former CEO of Canberra’s Space Environment Research Centre in Australia, expressed his concern with the untracked space debris, “There is so much debris that it is colliding with itself and creating more debris. A catastrophic avalanche of collisions which could quickly destroy all orbiting satellites is now possible.”
With the increase in equipment needed in space to support the technological age we are in, something needs to be done to get rid of the junk. China, as one of the biggest contributors to problem, has said they will experiment with a laser that can disintegrate space debris.
By focusing many small lasers to make one super beam, the plan is to vaporize the space junk into micro pieces causing them to fall back towards Earth. The micro pieces would then burn up when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere causing no issues to people or property below.
While the project is still in its infancy stage, researchers, scientists, and NASA officials are optimistic that the plan can work and hope it’s operational in the very near future.