COMMENTARY | Doesn't it seem we have lots of news sources and lots of choices of reporters to follow? Still, aren't there news stories that will affect us that we seldom hear about? One of those stories is space debris. As if we did not have enough to worry about on Earth, now we will be affected by junk scattered around in space!
So why should we learn about this? Aren't there plenty of problems here in our neighborhoods? Because as we become more used to our cell phones and other wireless devices, we become more used to the services often provided by satellites. We do not realize that many of our telephone conversations travel by satellite, and those systems are precisely positioned in space and must be carefully managed.
My understanding of this phenomenon began when I was a new Air Force officer, stationed at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. I worked at the Space Computational Center (SCC) and tracked satellites. At the time, this was done mostly by junior, inexperienced officers in an atmosphere of secrecy. We used a world-wide network of radar systems to track thousands of objects in space; these could be the actual satellites or pieces of the rockets that carried them into space. And often, satellites would eject pieces, such as lens covers, that became separate space objects.
One constant offender was the Soviet Salyut space station, which would periodically release many bits of what we were told was the station's trash. We had a difficult time tracking many objects since our radar systems did not have the coverage needed and they were not designed for the task. What I did learn was that the space environment was far more difficult to operate in than I had realized. And I learned a lot about what kind of threats there are.
Finally, we are building systems that can find and track some of the space junk, though tracking it is hardly a solution. We still have no system in development that could capture and eliminate the threats.
Increasingly, we use cell phones, unattended banking systems, and many devices to stay connected to our world. The relay satellites that many of these devices depend on can be threatened by other space objects -- some that we know about and some that are surprises. Many of these relay satellites are in geo-synchronous orbit, which means that they are far deeper in space than something familiar such as the Space Station. But they are still in danger of being damaged by known and unknown pieces of junk that could hit them. We have made great strides in changing operations so that we create less debris, but we have no way of removing the many pieces of debris that are already orbiting our planet.
Perhaps one day we can fly a system that can remove some of the larger pieces of junk -- so that they will not collide with others and create smaller, more difficult to track, objects. But that is in the future.
- Salyut space station
- space debris
- Cheyenne Mountain Complex
- objects in space
- new Air Force officer