Top of the fool chain

If you want to keep something in orbit around the Earth, you need it to be flying parallel to the surface at speeds exceeding those of bullets. Get high enough above atmospheric drag, and stuff will continue to orbit as long as the moon does.

The moon has been around for 4,530,000,000,000 years, give or take.

Humans have been throwing junk into space, and occassionally blowing orbiting crap into countless smithereens, for about fifty years. As a result, the risk of impact to large objects such as shuttles, observatories and space stations is one-in-a-few hundred.

Or, in the case of the International Space Station, one-in-what? Today the ISS was evacuated, just in case.

#iss tweets.

Since it’s obvious that it’s a bad idea to fill the orbital environment with junk that’s damn near impossible to get rid of, why do we keep doing it?

Because every species operates in its own flawed self interest, I guess.


  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Doc, I think you’re off by a factor of 1000 too old on the age of the moon. (not 4.35 Trillion years)

    You’re right about the junk in orbit. Externalized costs are always a problem, which is why we have pollution everywhere.

  2. Andrew Leyden’s avatar

    When I was a kid I thought, even before I played the video game Katamari Damashi, that it would be possible to build small robots that would gather up space junk into a ball that eventually, when big enough, fall toward Earth and burn up. Wonder if that would be possible.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Mike.

    It’s interesting to me that Earth, at about 4.5 billion years old, is about a third the age of the universe itself.

    Also that nearly all the ranking stars (those with magnitudes of 1 to 3) are far brighter than average, and short-lived. None, therefore, would support life, given our current assumptions.

    Also that the Sun, a yellow dwarf, is still brighter than 85% of the other stars in the Milky Way.

    And that the Milky Way has been around since not long after the Big Bang.

    Just killing time here at Logan before flying to Chicago and Austin.

  4. rjh’s avatar

    Another factor is that it’s hard to avoid creating junk, it’s hard to remove it, and the bulk of the junk was created accidentally.

    This particular piece of junk comes from one of the hard ones: what do you do with the spent booster rockets, mounting hardware, etc? The early stages fall to earth, but a lot of the final stages achieve orbit. The number one source of current junk is a couple final stage rockets that blew up after reaching orbit. That is the source for the particular bit of junk that threatened the station. They were not intended to blow up, but they did.

    Current designs use depletion burns to reduce spent booster lifespan but there are still issues. For example, those exploding bolts used to separate the satellite from the booster also spray junk. Alternative technologies that have the same strength and reliability are needed.

    Junk per launch is way down, but still needs work.

  5. Richard Reeve’s avatar

    It’s going to take one really big Hoover vacuum to clean it up. Maybe it can be put into round two of the stimulus package…

    We really are a messy species, littering abundantly regardless of the effects. It’s not just the teens pulling out of the drive through window and later tossing the bag out the window.

  6. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Well… it’s already a pretty hard vacuum… so we can’t suck it up… and the solar wind isn’t eroding it fast enough… but eventually will take care of it.

Comments are now closed.