WTF is in Space?

Earth

WTF is in Space?

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

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une 3, 1965. The dawn of the space age. American astronaut Edward White steps out of his Gemini 4 spacecraft into the vacuum, for the very first time. He’s carrying a set of tools, to fix a glitch on the capsule. As he works, one thermal glove (luckily, a spare) drops out of his toolbox and enters Earth’s orbit. And there it floated for over a month.

Space wasn’t as lonely as it’s set up to be. White’s glove had half a million bits and pieces to keep it company – random waste generated by our space activity since Sputnik was launched in 1957.

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Today, there are loose screws, spent rocket stages, and broken-off bits of satellites mostly, but also a spatula, a frozen pea, and Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry’s ashes.

The final frontier doubles up as one vast and endless garbage dump. And it comes with its own incinerator. Earth. Because as soon as anything makes contact with our atmosphere, it burns.

Today, as ISRO launched a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket on its 37th mission, we are most likely going to add to this mess. A weather-tracking satellite named Pratham that was built by students at IIT-Bombay, is set to go into space without a deorbiting mechanism. This means that it has no way of getting back into Earth’s atmosphere, where it can burn to ash. Pratham will stop functioning as its battery runs out.

As a result, the satellite will effectively become a 10-kilogramme ball of metal falling toward Earth in a slow spiral, threatening the International Space Station as well as space-walking astronauts in lower orbits along the way.

In 2015, one hunk of space junk, dubbed WT1190F (or WTF), braved the atmosphere to land off the coast of Sri Lanka. Scientists salvaged the charred UFO, 6.5 feet in diameter, and got to work figuring out what it was. Sri Lankans, meanwhile, thanked their stars that it was too small to actually hurt.

We can’t really jiggle the Earth around to duck out of the flight path of life-threatening space junk. But one Australian company has a bright idea: We could blast it out with lasers.

In space, with all this junk orbiting Earth at incredible speeds of nearly 28,000 kmph, a calamity is waiting to happen, says NASA. They pose an obvious danger to orbiting spacecraft and the ISS. When two bits of space junk collide, they set off chain reactions. In 1996, a French satellite was hit by debris from a rocket that had exploded a decade earlier. And, in 2009, a defunct Russian satellite smashed into a functioning US satellite, creating, you guessed it, more space junk.

It’s gotten so bad that space junk bagged top villain billing in its movie debut. In 2014’s Oscar-winning Gravity, a CGI cloud of debris clashes, triggering an apocalyptic cascade of collisions, reducing everything in its path to splinters.

Now this is where it gets worrying. William Schonberg, a professor of aerospace engineering at MIT, says the plot of this movie is not implausible. “The general concept of a ‘runaway debris collision’ event as depicted in the movie might be possible,” he told astrowatch.net. “While Gravity took liberties with the laws of physics… it did bring the problem of space debris in the minds of many people who may not have known about it.”

This Gravity-like shit storm of events is called the Kessler syndrome. Proposed by NASA scientist Donald J Kessler in 1978, it describes a tragic scenario of two giant pieces of metal colliding in mid-air, causing a chain reaction and ruining our satellites for “many generations”.

That means no more internet.

Obviously something has to be done to ensure that doesn’t happen. Thankfully, big brother is watching over us. NASA figures there’s no need to do anything, if there’s no problem. So it first assesses whether the threat is enough to warrant evasive action.

Scientists do this by drawing an imaginary “pizza box” – because it’s flat and rectangular – around the space vehicle. This box is about 30 miles across, 30 miles long, and a mile deep, with the vehicle in the centre. When predictions indicate that the debris will pass close enough for concern, Mission Control centres in Houston and Moscow, develop a prudent course of action – a “debris avoidance manoeuver”.

The biggest threat right now is the 85-foot-tall ENVISAT satellite, contact with which was unexpectedly lost in April 2012. The craft is expected to stay in orbit for about 150 years before it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. So if NASA detects ENVISAT moving into the path of any other large piece of junk, it will perform an avoidance manoeuvre to keep the debris outside of the box.

Debris avoidance manoeuvres can be executed in a matter of hours, but can take 30 hours to plan since they have to use the International Space Station’s Russian thrusters.

The space station routinely goes through these manoeuvres. “The entire massive structure is mobile – it can be rolled and pitched and yawed, or even moved in three dimensions to avoid a potential collision with debris,” says arstechnica.

But what do we do when stuff like WTF hurtles earthwards, or the much larger “Jules Verne”, which lit up the skies in 2008, when an Automated Transfer Vehicle burnt up on re-entry?

We can’t really jiggle the Earth around to duck out of the flight path of life-threatening space junk. But one Australian company has a bright idea: We could blast it out with lasers.

Or we could bring it back to basics. Listen up kids, grow up and be astronauts sure, but don’t litter.

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