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Saturday 10 December 2016

TV Review: The Trouble with Space Junk

Dr Donald Kessler painted a bleak picture of our future in The Trouble With Space Junk
Dr Donald Kessler painted a bleak picture of our future in The Trouble With Space Junk

THERE’S an old space joke that’s been orbiting the planet for decades: “Why has NASA never put a woman on the moon? Because she’d only want to clean it up.” Boom and indeed boom again.

The joke doesn’t seem half as funny, however, once you’ve watched Horizon’s absorbing but deeply disturbing film The Trouble With Space Junk.

If the moon is now something of a dump, what with all the bits and pieces of redundant technology the Apollo astronauts had to leave behind when heading home, the area of space where our little blue planet lives is infinitely worse.

The earth is encircled by a vast, swirling cloud of space junk from missions past and ongoing, whizzing around at 17,000kph.

The multi-Oscar-winning Gravity was, in spite of its truly breathtaking special effects, a shockingly overrated film. But it hit the nail on the head with its terrifying depiction of the dangers posed by space debris.

While it’s unlikely you’ll find too many nails floating around in space, you’ll certainly come across the occasional screwdriver, wrench or some other tool accidentally lost by astronauts while out on space walks, as well as fragments of old satellites and rockets that have been circling for decades.

What goes up to space doesn’t always come down. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it also launched the first consignment of debris into space. By the 1980s, the United States Air Force was tracking 10,000 pieces of space debris.

DESTROYED

When China deliberately destroyed one of its own orbiting satellites with a rocket — widely believed to be a little muscle-flexing for any future ‘space war’ — in 2007, it unleashed a further 3,000 bits of debris.

The USAF is currently tracking some 22,000 pieces and these are only the bigger ones. There may be hundreds of millions of other fragments of rubbish, too small to be detected by tracking technology, flying around out there.

Most of these wouldn’t do any significant damage to orbiting satellites or spacecraft — astronauts, though, are a different matter.

A scientist at the University of Kent used the world’s most powerful gas gun, a tiny steel ball and a sheet of polycarbonate plastic to demonstrate how a piece of space debris half the size of a pea can penetrate the visor of an astronaut’s helmet. If a chunk of debris the size of a whole can were to hit the International Space Station (ISS), it would cause the pressurised craft to split open like a balloon full of water that’s been popped with a pin.

In 2009, the ISS had to change direction three times to avoid hurtling space debris. Astronaut Dr Sandra Magnus was on board for one particularly hairy close call, when the warning came to late to manoeuvre the station out of the danger zone.

“It was either going to hit or it wasn’t going to hit, all you can do is wait,” she said with admirable understatement.

As far back as 1978, senior NASA scientist Dr Donald Kessler, a contributor to the documentary, proposed that one major collision in space would cause “a cascade of collisions”, destroying one satellite after another. Our technology-driven society would be set back 100 years, while space exploration and the use of new satellites would be unfeasible for many generations.

Another scientist has a plan to use a satellite-mounted harpoon  to spear debris and render it harmless. Shooting fish in a barrel? Not quite. The mission would cost billions. It would also leave behind debris of its own.

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