Space Junk's Threat

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

We're heading into scary territory with space garbage. The AP reports on Space station's close call with junk: More to come:

The near-hit of space junk Thursday was a warning shot fired across the bow of the international space station, experts said.

There's likely more to come in the future. With less than an hour's notice, the three astronauts were told they'd have to seek shelter in a Russian capsule parked at the space station in case a speeding piece of space junk hit Thursday.

If it hit and they were in the main part of the station, they'd have only 10 minutes of safety, Mission Control told them. A hole in the space station could mean loss of air, loss of pressure and eventual loss of life.

What freaks out people who believe we need to get off this planet -- for exploration and ultimately survival of our species --is this possibility: If enough of these things collide with each other and then create more junk, the planet could be eventually surrounded by a ring of debris that makes any space travel impossible.

The big Space Cleanup needs to start, pronto. But how?


  1. Community service for misdemeanors. Give folks an orange spacesuit, drop them off with a few bags, pick them up a few hours later.

  2. Push unusable satellites toward the sun.

    I did a cartoon strip that featured a Primitive Cultures 101 class and teacher from another planet that were coming to Earth to study us. They had to park outside because there was too much junk in orbit to enter our atmosphere.
    Not all funny any more.

  3. Simple answer, folks: Deflector shields. Wasn’t this the whole intent of the idea in Star Trek? Clear any debris paths in front of a ship? Granted, you could get hammered from all sides (as in the case of our floating luxury hotel up there), but for ships leaving the atmosphere and pushing outside earth…

  4. Going out on a limb here, but I don’t think picking up debris is possible. There are too many pieces moving at too many different velocities in various orbits. At this point the object is to stop adding to the problem. The closing speed on this piece was over 20,000 mph, IIRC, the station is moving over 17,000 mph.

  5. Armored ships? Energy shields a la Star Trek? Dunno, but it would make for an interesting alt.history in the ST universe…

    …Starfleet developed shielding technology not to battle aliens but to keep Starships from being torn to shreds by the buildup of “space junk” orbiting earth in the 23rd century.

    Just so happens it is also effective at reducing the damage caused by things like Klingon disruptor beams, etc.

  6. Man, this site is really bringing me down lately. Earth on the brink, and no way to escape. I sure as hell wish I hadn’t spent my last beach vacation reading The Road.

  7. Space bulldozer. Gather ALL of it up and shove it towards the sun. Complete reboot.

    We can’t live without satellites for a few months?

    I’d hate to be riding the space elevator with all that crap up there.

  8. @#11

    Yes, magnets do work in space! There are four fundamental forces at work in nature…

    The strong force (atomic scale)
    The weak force (atomic scale)
    Gravity (Apples falling from trees and such)
    Electromagnetic (Light, essentially)

    Magnetism is intrinsic to object and unaffected by environment. Basically.

  9. Big ol’ ball of ballistic gel? Even if it wasn’t thick enough to stop the junk (how thick would it need to be to stop an object going 10,000 mph faster than it?), it’d surely slow it down so that eventually it’d go into a decaying/terminal orbit.

    All we need are about 300 metric tons of Knox unflavored gelatin . . .

  10. Johnny Cat wonders if magnets work in space.
    Well, the moon pulls at our oceans to create tides, so I guess so. However, they don’t use much iron in spacecraft.
    I say we build a giant stationary net, capture the satellites, attach a couple rockets to the net and send it all to the sun.

  11. I watched the “WALL-E” DVD last weekend, and saw something I’d forgotten: The garbage-strewn earth is surrounded by a cloud of trashed Buy n’ Large communication satellites.

  12. The moon creates tides with gravity, not magnetism.

    But yes magnets work in space. Those plastic “magnetic marbles” you can buy for two bucks at any corner store? They first appeared on early space shuttle flights, so astronauts could get used to how things interacted in space and to make cute movie clips for the kids back on earth.

  13. The trouble, of course, is that all the debris is very, very diffuse, so nets/Kevlar “sponges” (I don’t know if anyone else has thought of this, a big heap of Kevlar that just absorbs junk)/rockets spraying water will require huge, expensive programs to clear out any appreciable quantity of junk.

    Unfortunately, it’s not diffuse enough not to worry about.

    If you actually wanted to leave Earth, and not orbit it, I suppose you could figure out a decent orbit, launch a net/sponge/whatever into the same path before you go there and hope you don’t have any fast transiting objects as you leave the gravity well.

    If you had deflector shield technology, maybe you could develop tractor beam technology from it, so you could have an orbital tractor beam system sucking in debris – which you could then auction off on eBay, I suppose.

  14. Trent@6: Well, space is a vacuum, so you’d just need a VERY BIG one. Then all we’d have to worry about is ripping apart the fabric of the universe, which would suck. ;D

  15. Sending stuff to the sun is kinda cost prohibitive isn’t it? Unless we can calculate a good Earth gravity assist and a long trip to get there.

    Seed Earth orbit with nanobots that will gather the space junk and rebuild it into a fantasy space liner. What could go wrong?

  16. They can track space junk via radar and whatever, so all they need to do is add some big ass lasers and burn this stuff up as they track it. They could blast it from the ground, or they could add a couple laser turrets to the space station and blast this stuff as they pass it. They could hold contests to send people up to man the turrets.

  17. Also, orbital mechanics means that you can’t put some sort of net/sticky stuff up there and just gather up the stuff. Orbit is directly tied to velocity. So, if your collector is in a given orbit, it will never catch up to anything else in that orbit. If you add more velocity it doesn’t go faster along the same path it moves into a higher, elliptical orbit. The elliptical orbit can, in theory, intercept stuff in intervening circular orbits (which is what happened with the ISS actually) but this a really, really small target.

    Basically, cleaning up space debris is a hard problem.

  18. I like where CALLADUS is going…


    What if we started equipping our space vehicles of all types with ballistic traps? Have the shuttle extend a ballistic trap on the Canada Arm, and use it to capture whatever incidental debris it encounters in its flight. If you were smart about the design, and tracked enough stuff, you could use the energy from the impact with the debris to start/stop rotation, initiate re-entry, etc. Then, you could either carry it back down with you, or ditch it to burn up on re-entry, or even send it to splash down in the ocean.

  19. We humans hide in our tin can squirrel hole for 10 minutes drinking Tang, because the sky might fall, a one in a million chance. You can’t be too careful.

    But right now, somewhere, there’s a raccoon stuck in a real squirrel hole, possibly occupied, without a butt rack, and it looks like it might be a long night.

    We need some perspective here.

  20. Pay attention Happy Mutants:

    she was walking
    all alone
    down the street
    in the alley
    her name was sally
    she never saw it
    I never touched her
    when she was hit by
    space junk
    when she was smashed by
    space junk
    when she was killed by
    space junk
    in new york
    miami beach
    heavy metal fell
    in cuba
    saudi arabia
    on xmas eve
    said norad
    a soviet sputnik
    hit africa
    it’s falling fast
    in peru too
    it keeps coming
    it keeps coming
    it keeps coming
    and now i’m mad about
    space junk
    i’m all burned out on
    space junk
    oooh walk & talk about
    space junk
    it smashed my baby’s head
    and now my sally’s dead

    Space Junk by Devo

  21. The idea of pushing our garbage into the sun is insane.

    While the sun is 1,000,000 times the size of the Earth, our poor track record in anticipating the consequences of our pollution would suggest we should proceed with extreme caution when considering whether to add material to the most important thermonuclear reactor we know.

  22. I’ve always had this theory about how to collect the most dangerous space junk safely. Send up giant globs of Aerogel with a basic automated thruster unit attached. Like an ice cream cone with a giant aerogel ball. Then program it to start intercepting the junk. The junk flies into the gel, and like the blob, the gel does it’s job of capturing it with exponential deceleration. After so many hits, the gel then is sent to earth’s fiery atmosphere.

  23. How do you catch something going .001% the speed of light? With math, of course.
    Send in the Tachikoma!

  24. The detail that isn’t mentioned in the article is that it is estimated the debris passed the ISS distance of about 2.4 miles []. Given the size of the space around our planet, a very close call.

    But this also brings to light how unfeasible any of the solutions involving a net, laser, water cannon or goo globs is. We simply don’t have an exact enough tracking on the majority of this space junk to be able to shoot them down with these precise methods. The best guess anyone had for the debris nearing the ISS was that it was either going to be a direct hit, or pass within 3 miles of it. That’s a 19-square-mile plane of space you would have to cover to take out this 5-inch hunk of junk.

  25. space algae? Breed something that photosynthesizes, is tolerant of orbital conditions, maybe needs occasional water delivery, uses a matrix (aerogel again?) to establish itself on, grows exponentially, sops up space junks by absorbing kinetic impact energy and trapping particles, lets the big hunks whistle right through and is self pruning by falling in to burn up when it gets too heavy (a piece at a time?). Also splice genes for growing desired substances (medical molecules, THC etc) We could also use it as vast floating screens to project advertising and pornography upon.

  26. solar cell collector fields powering giant electromagnets that direct ferrous crap downwards to burn? You only need to keep certain “spacelanes” clear”, not an entire globular shell of space.

    Also, there must be a way to pervert this into denial of space access for others. Charge tolls for launch/orbital paths that are kept clear?

  27. Densify gas in upper atmosphere, then superheat.

    Pro: Space junk destroyed.

    Con: Life on earth destroyed.

  28. Any opportunity to shill my favourite manga of all time: Planetes. The first few pages is an absolutely chilling glimpse at the potential problems space junk could cause.

  29. The thing about ‘space junk’ is, given enough time, most of the material just re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up. Unfortunately, as the importance of LEO to a technologically advancing species becomes more important, we can’t afford to wait a few hundred -or thousand- years for the ‘sky’ to clear. It is an increasing problem because we are putting more into LEO than is being removed by ‘natural’ mechanisms.

    The Space Shuttle and ISS are struck all the time by very small pieces of debris. The danger really increases for objects that are bigger than a millimeter and have a high velocity relative to either spacecraft or unprotected astronauts. The current thinking to mitigate the problem is to design launch systems that have less debris producing capability and have them programmed to re-enter the atmosphere sooner rather than later.

  30. While the sun is 1,000,000 times the size of the Earth, our poor track record in anticipating the consequences of our pollution would suggest we should proceed with extreme caution when considering whether to add material to the most important thermonuclear reactor we know.

    I’m pretty sure the debris would vaporize long before it actually made it to the sun. The solar wind would then send itty-bitty moleculesout into space. And as we all know from Hitchhiker’s Guide, space is really really big.

  31. maybe Saturn had this ancient civilization that crumbled before their own space junk falling heavily from the skies, and then after eons of junk colliding with junk in the outer ring, it became space dust. What a stupid civilization.

    Oh, wait…

  32. i vaguely remember a scifi story about a future where mankind is imprisoned on earth by a cloud of space junk…

  33. Yes, magnets work in space.
    No, the moon does not cause tides via magnetism. There’s this thing called, y’know, gravity.
    No, you cant simply

    Push unusable satellites toward the sun

    because the delta-vee is quite large. Oh, and you’d have to catch the damn things first which would mean you could… catch them…
    No, dropping a satellite into the sun would not be dangerous. Do you have any idea how much stuff already falls in every year? (modulo debates about whether it vapourises before actually impacting)
    Suggestion – some of you really, really, really need to learn a bit about actual science. Y’know, the stuff that is logical, reasoned, as true as we can find, not faith based, all that tricky hard stuff?

  34. Hi TIM.

    I am learning some good science stuff here. The actual impetus of my query about magnets was an invitation to the Happy Mutant crowd to educate me. I hadn’t ever studied a lot of physics and astronomy (I guess I could have asked Jeeves, but the BB crowd is much more fun) –and I wondered if magnets are solely a planetary phenomenon. Good point about the catching satellites and then hurling them at the sun. Reminds me of the trick to catching birds–put salt on their tails.

  35. giant Mylar mirrors so big their focal points clear effective lanes by vaporizing objects. How dangerous is a cloud of hot vapor at that speed? I’ll take the job of running them but I want a Nehru jacket.

  36. @51:

    There you go! Figure out a way to generate a localized heavy gravity field that forces junk to slow and drop out of orbit.

    I like the ground based laser idea. If we can already track objects down to the sub 1-inch range with radar, we should be able to shoot at least some of it with a laser.

  37. I’ll start worrying about space junk just right after we’ve cleaned up the “two times the state of Texas” sized plastic soup swill out in the Pacific Ocean. If we can’t take care of our own planet, then we don’t really deserve to go screw up other worlds.

  38. ground based laser would attenuate too much from atmospheric goop. How about cheap-ass laser satellites?

  39. The technical problem here (space junk) is dwarfed by the social problem (high ground).

    As long as space is just another place to put military gear, short term gains on the planetary surface will justify any long-term costs.

    I suppose payloads could get so tiny, with self-replicating nanobots doing all the hard work, that we won’t need too big a hole to shoot something useful out of the well. I think it’s more likely that manned space flight will become too risky for publicity stunts like the ISS.

    Add clean LEO to all the other things we’ll miss about the twentieth century. Eventually I suppose we might have laser cannons on Luna, and when they’re not doing more important things they can nudge bits of junk out of orbit with their light pressure a little bit at a time.

    Humanity’s window into space is already constrained by tougher problems than space junk. Sure, eventually we won’t be able to punch through the garbage, but by that time we won’t have the technical ability to launch anything that high anyway.

  40. Think big people.

    If it is really true what they say about HAARP, that if you pump enough power into it you can “lift” the upper atmosphere. Then maybe that would be enough to decay the orbits of some debris. Alternately once the atmosphere is energized you could turn it into a plasma and a plasma can be given an electric charge. Maybe, if you did it right that would channel the debris into lines of force. Creating “lanes” of debris that one can either avoid or scoop up some other way.

    Also, Tesla had plans for giant coils and claimed that he could crack the Earth like an egg. So maybe if you had big enough Tesla coils you could… I don’t know, zap the debris or deflect it somehow. Even if that didn’t work it would be the coolest show of all time (possibly also our last).

  41. so any poor nation with minimal space capacity could loft a few tons of ball bearings and deny space to the richer nation’s war satellites?

  42. to expand on that, a preemptive strike to destroy a nation’s launch ability could be justified by saying it was intending to damage all humanity by denying us space access by malicious “mission failures”.

  43. I believe a laser would vaporize parts of the space junk unevenly which would break apart big pieces into little pieces. So there might be more space junk in smaller pieces.

  44. HAARP…yeah..could use space cleaning as a cover for wrecking economies through weather control…

  45. I’m with Igpajo here, space-lasers for the win, despite Kurtmac’s reasonable objection: Space is big, the junk is small. Lasers would still work though, you have a lot of energy up there, so it just needs to be so-so exact. As for range.. well, it would have to be pretty darn powerful to reach Earth, no?
    This is similar (although not really) to something I’ve been pondering lately: With all that plastic junk floating around in the ocean (The Great Garbage Patch comes to mind), how do we get rid of it? The resemblance here is that the most of the plastic have broken down into very small pieces. Maybe the solution is to stop throwing plastic in the ocean and just let the crap already out there decompose? But that just seem like such a 20th century way of thinking. They say we can’t afford all the clean-up solutions we need to implement. They, as in “They, who control the cash”, not “They, who actually study this stuff”, the later they actually seem to think it’s cheap, at least in the long run.
    I think we need to get jihadist in our approach here. Economy is simple, it equals humans working plus resources. Resources are scarce,humans are abundant. And if we try to cut down on all these “make-work” jobs, like day traders & sales people, then we would have even more available hands. Furthermore, it seems that we loose our passion when society reaches a certain income-level. The only thing we really can get fired up about, is the cult of the individual/happiness. Maybe if we became rapid greenies, junk in space & other places wouldn’t be a problem, just a matter of planning/allocating resources.

  46. Push the junk to the sun: wouldn’t work, would take way too much energy. Just push it back into the atmosphere where it’ll burn up.

    Magnets: space junk is mostly not ferro-magnetic.

    Nets: have you tried catching something moving at 20,000 mph? What are we going to make those nets out of?

    Gravity generator: OK. Would work. We’ll just have to figure out how to make it.

    Lasers: break up big easy-to-track pieces into many small hard-to-track pieces. On the plus side, they may into the atmosphere faster and get burnt up. And it’ll be fun. But many satellites have shiny parts that may deflect those lasers in unintended directions.

    Black holes: get Cern to make a few black holes. Consolidate them and stabilize into a single black hole. Then launch it into orbit. It will start gobbling up those space junk like pacman. Soon, all the junk will be cleared. It only leaves us with one problem. What to do with that black hole in the decaying orbit?

  47. What’d I miss? I just got back from a meeting with Shatner and Nemoy. They quite agree: salvage mission. They use a lot of very exotic metals in those satellites, and we’re gonna do a little harvesting.
    We didn’t really invite Shatner… he was stealing Nemoy’s newspaper from the driveway when I pulled up. It’s so hard to get rid of him.
    We couldn’t pool the $120M to build a ship, but we’ve got a plan to abscond with an alien craft. That saves a lot of time and hassle with government regulations.
    We’ll pose Shatner in a radioactive cow suit grazing in the middle of a big crop circle. When the aliens come to probe him, Nemoy gets them with a Vulcan nerve pinch while I commandeer the vessel with my ray-gun looking squirt gun, filled with Tang. They hate Tang- must be the citric acid- it’s like acid to them.
    We’ll leave the aliens tied up in a shed while we harvest precious metals from space jetsam. Can’t miss!

  48. I don’t know if anyone has commented on this, but at the orbit of the International space station, that space junk will fall back into the earth in a couple of months. They have to “reboost” the ISS every couple of months because its orbit is always decaying. Any space junk in that kind of orbit will end up going back down and burning up.

  49. @2: Putting clouds of some kind of particles or gas (the water theme) in LEO to interfere with orbits of other objects has some appeal – it might help orbits to decay faster, especially if the particles were in an equatorial orbit to capture polar orbits.

    The big problem is that most solutions involve putting MORE stuff up in orbit to try some stuff.

    A selective approach might be better – design something to collect and de-orbit the bigger stuff before that stuff collides and creates LOTS of little stuff. Also, design all new equipment to reduce the number of parts that fly off by design and de-orbit the bigger discarded pieces.

    A big problem is that if the clutter in LEO gets bad enough to interfere with launches, even of critical satellites, then either the vessels will need to be armored (adding cost through weight), or the services that satellites perform will have to be forgone.

    As most long distance communications these days is through buried cable, we can probably stop launching any more communications satellites – replacing them with high altitude blimps for communications with regions not yet served by cables.

    Similarly, the US military seems to be exploring the use of high altitude blimps for observations.

    Weather and other earth observation satellites might be replaced by high altitude blimps.

    Manned space flight can be abandoned. The immediate benefits of manned space flight aren’t evident anyway.

    With luck and by extremely limiting the number of launches, the junk in LEO that’s hazardous would probably clear out after a few hundred years.

  50. RE: space debris cleanup. Lot’s of decent ideas, although making enough aerogel to do any good would be a major trick. Magnets work in space, but satellites are made of aluminum, titanium, fiberglass and solar cells. Not a lot of magnetic stuff up there except radio bits.

    Part of the answer is to de-orbit that which you no longer need. Unfortunately, geo communication satellites are way up there, and de-orbiting them isn’t easy (you need as much energy to make it come down as you did to get it from low orbit to geo.) Of course, if this was legislated, I’d want the contract to schedule them to de-orbit right after the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events!

    The unpowered space junk is a harder problem. Personally I think the 300 metric tons of Knox gellatin is as feasible as most other ideas.

    FWIW, I wrote a scifi story when I was younger where a belligerent nation sent up a small satellite that used opposed shotgun shells to knock down all the spy sats that came over it’s territory (get within a hundred miles or so, and computers can calculate the trajectory ‘close enough.) My English teacher thought is was crap, so I sent the idea to a local astrophysics prof. His response was pretty much, “holy crap, this would work!” I didn’t take the space debris problem into account though.


  51. @81
    one big massy object’s orbit will decay faster than the orbits of the same mass broken into bits.

  52. I’m with STRATOSFYR and CRASHSOLO, Planetes (both the manga and the anime) are excellent, hard scifi examples of how this will no doubt impact us in the coming century. We’ve barely gotten off our own planet and we are already polluting the ever living hell out of our orbit space and beyond.

    Given the likelihood of this getting out of control, I would suggest sending unmanned drones to push what could be into the atmosphere to burn up on descent, quickly collecting the rest, and imposing strict global regulations on governments and businesses that enter space.

  53. I once heard that every solution eventually becomes a problem itself… starting to believe it now….

  54. It seems I’m alone in here.
    Seriously, nobody has even heard of Planetes? Great series, deals with this problem realistically.

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