WTF is in Space: What Happens to Debris Left in the Cosmos by Programmes Like Mission Shakti?


WTF is in Space: What Happens to Debris Left in the Cosmos by Programmes Like Mission Shakti?

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

In June 1965, when Prime Minister Modi was just a young chowkidar, an astronaut named Edward White stepped out into space. He was carrying a set of tools to fix a glitch on his Gemini 4 capsule. At one point during this very extreme activity, he dropped a glove out of his toolbox. Luckily it was a spare, so his arm didn’t violently implode, but it probably led to the first swear word uttered in space.

The glove just hung around Earth’s orbit, hi-fiving meteors, before it went on to join half a million bits and pieces of “space junk” – random trash generated by all our space activity since Sputnik launched in 1957. Today, those bits include loose screws, spent rocket stages, and broken-off bits of satellites, mostly, but also a spatula, a frozen pea, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ashes. Space is not as lonely as you’d imagine it to be.

Now, thanks to the recent Mission Shakti, which recently blew up a defunct satellite in space, about 400 more pieces of junk have been added into the mix. Today, the NASA chief implied that this could be quite dangerous for astronauts and the International Space Station because no one wants a giant sheet of metal hitting them at intense speeds. The last time China tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 it created 3,000 pieces of space junk. That event had caused similar outrage.

In space – with all this junk orbiting Earth at speeds of Salman Khan after a night out – a calamity is waiting to happen, NASA has said. Space junk poses an obvious danger to orbiting spacecraft and the ISS. Plus when two bits of space junk collide, they set off chain reactions that could lead to some serious destruction. 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.

Today, the final frontier, much like the suburb of Andheri, doubles up as a vast and endless garbage dump. Luckily though, the space dump also comes with its own partial incinerator – Earth. Because as soon as anything makes contact with our atmosphere, it burns. So now instead of worrying about large slabs of metal falling to Earth, we need to worry about burning pieces of satellite falling to Earth…

In 2015, one giant ball of space junk, dubbed WT1190F (or WTF), managed to brave the atmosphere and landed off the coast of Sri Lanka. As scientists salvaged the charred UFO and got to work figuring out what it was, Sri Lankans thanked their stars that it was too small to accidentally take out a few cities. 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 said. “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” – a situation that could mean no more internet… not even Jio.

Obviously, something has to be done to ensure that doesn’t happen. Scientists prevent space junk collisions by drawing an imaginary “pizza box” – because it’s flat and rectangular – around the spacecraft. 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”. 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.

But what do we do when stuff like WTF hurtles earthwards? We can’t really jiggle the Earth around to duck out of the flight path of life-threatening space junk, as willing as Elon Musk will be to try. One Australian company has an idea straight out of Looney Toons: We could blast it out with lasers. Or, we could bring it back to basics and throw our weight behind Swachh Bharat (Space Edition), 2020.