Most of us know what it feels like to be driving along the highway and suddenly have to swerve to avoid hitting some sort of debris on the road. Depending on the road conditions and amount of traffic at the time is can be quite scary. If you do hit something you usually have the option to pull off to the side of the road to check out the damage or if it is more serious call for a tow truck.
Imagine that instead of being on one of Oregon’s highways you are in orbit 250 miles above the earth in the International Space Station (ISS). Debris in space is a completely different and much more serious issue.
A recent blockbuster movie “Gravity” took the collision with space debris to its worst-case scenario. If you haven’t seen the movie I’ll give you a thumbnail plot outline. It seems the Russians send a missile to destroy one of their dead satellites and the debris spread out and was destroying other satellites. The debris field then hits the space shuttle which is rendered useless. The two survivors are left outside in space and need to find a way to get home. If you look up the movie on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) you will find that the the “science” of the movie includes many goofs. The movie is a fun ride, but you do have to use what Edgar Allen Poe called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” That means you have to believe everything you are told or shown without comparing it to reality.
Simply put our geostationary satellites whiz around at 22,500 miles above the earth to match the rotation of the earth and hover over the equator. Our manned vehicles are found near 250 miles above the earth. What this means is debris from the exploded satellite that high up would not be able to hit the space shuttle or anything else at low-earth orbit.
Space is, none the less, still a very dangerous place filled with a lot of space junk that can damage or destroy whatever it comes in contact with. It all started with our Mercury Space Program. The Russians had already sent a vehicle into space. Once the flights started getting longer the astronauts had to get rid of bodily waste and other trash that they didn’t have room for in their phone booth-sized space capsules. That was the beginning of “space junk.”
When space walks became increasingly necessary items like nuts, bolts and wrenches were accidentally lost in space. As the proliferation of satellites increased some would fail and fall out of orbit becoming space junk as they fell into the atmosphere and burned up. Some pieces survive the fiery re-entry and crash into the earth. That slow descent from higher orbit to our atmosphere takes a bit of time unlike what they portray in the movies.
Recently there was an emergency evacuation on the International Space Station (ISS) due to debris that was spotted heading toward the area where the space station was located. It happened on Thursday July 16, 2015. A piece from an old Russian satellite was detected as heading toward the ISS so American astronaut Scott Kelly and the two Russians evacuated the ISS and crawled into the attached Soyuz capsule to wait until the danger passed. When this happens they usually have enough time to move the space station out of the way, but this time they had only 1.5 hours advanced notice before possible impact. The debris passed within about 1.5 miles of their location which is very close when you are in the void of space. Kelly was quoted as saying he was “happy there was no impact.” He tweeted the message “Great coordination with international ground teams. Excellent training.” The Soyuz capsule is considered their “lifeboat” should they have to quickly evacuate the space station due to some critical situation. During the 16 years the ISS has been in space the astronauts who were living and working there only had to evacuate the station 4 times.
Unless someone invents some kind of space debris vacuum cleaner this will continue to be a threat to any thing or anyone orbiting in space. Odds are more debris will be generated increasing the threat as time goes on.
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