Man Made Space Debris

There is a considerable amount of debris striking the earth from rockets and orbiting equipment - an obvious concern. A recent article I came across described individual who track and recover debris including fuel tanks etc in various parts of the world out of personal interest. The last sentence of the article described communicating with NASA and SpaceX in case there was interest, and the response reported was to the effect of “we are only concerned when it’s orbiting and have no interest when it falls to earth”. Considering the many thousands of low altitude satellites being planned for and authorized by government agencies, shouldn’t the private or public agencies sending up equipment take responsibility and be concerned about where it falls and recovering the debris?

@AquaDoc 100% agree with you that managing space debris should be better tackled, could perhaps this discussion be filed within the Space Junk discussion thread we also have going on? What do you think?

I agree it could be filed or discussed under the subject of Space Junk, although my quick scan of the threads echo recent attention the recent SpaceX launch and the collision false alarm - with the focus on debris “impacting” commercial interests related to space travel and satellite interactions. Can you imagine the orbiting debris if every country were to launch it’s own satellites, or any private commercial enterprise that could afford it did? My brother is an animator. When he was attending a computer animation program he produced a short on space junk. A cartoon alien fed up with debris being dumped on the moon collects it all and dumps it on a heap over one of the NASA rockets. There has long been concern about light pollution and the difficulty astronomers, professional and amateur alike, have finding a location away from artificial light at night. Now imagine getting the perfect pitch black night for a long exposure only to find the image streaked by the mass of low orbit satellites that will soon be launched.

Really appreciate your feedback and thank you for sharing the storyline of your brother’s animated short–I agree there has to be a better way to manage light pollution!

I want to loop in @Roey and @crointel who started the initial Space Junk thread…what do you both think? Should this be separated out from the initial discussion, which seems to focus more on the human safety aspects of too much stuff floating around in space, and dig in more here about the pollution (in orbit and seen from earth) aspects?

Given the limited number of participants at this point I think clustering topics is a good idea until such time as a facet becomes too dominant, and then spin it out. Debris on mars, the moon, in space, in orbit or returning to earth - it’s still unwanted or non-useful debris that has a finite environmental impact. Even material “burning” up on entry has an impact of some sort on the atmosphere. At the moment the effects may not be measurable, but what if, say, a nuclear thermal rocket was used/tested and burned and distributed into the atmosphere on re-entry, or … ?

I believe that these two threads both talked about Space Junk in a broad sense, but with different focuses. The original one focused on the impact on human activities in space, especially LEO, and this one focused on impact on the Earth, especially the environment.

I expect that most of solutions for dealing with these two types of impacts are different, but may share something in common. I am not sure.

So, depending on how much space we would like to leave for challenge designers, the threads may be merged or not.

@AquaDoc, @crointel, @JessicaYoon -

It seems to me that this discussion has moved to another subject: not just space debris/junk, but the consequences of having a large number of useful man-made objects in orbit.

Maybe we can focus directly on the issue of light pollution?

I wasn’t aware of light pollution caused by human-made space debris. Does it or soon will it create a general impact, or just affect very limited persons, such as astronomers? Light pollution caused by other sources, such as street lamps, seems much serious to me. But if light pollution caused by human-made space debris does affect, i.e. flight safety, future human activities in the Earth Orbital, it should be considered an area of focus.

I think the relationship between satellites and light pollution isn’t that the former causes the latter, it’s that they both interfere with the ability to view the night sky. Having tens of thousands of low orbit satellites is going to create problems photographing the night sky.

On the other hand, if we’re concerned about photographing the night sky for research purposes, it may well be that when satellite swarms surround the Earth, many will also carry telescopes that will be used by the scientific community to peer into space.

Another thing that should be considered is the potential environmental consequences of the many satellites being launched on the atmosphere during reentry. If the agencies launching satellites aren’t concerned about debris striking the earth it’s either because they are hoping any consequential damage won’t be traced back to the agency responsible, or they are expecting the debris to burn up and vaporize on reentry. My question is why isn’t the proposed launching of tens of thousands of satellites into low orbit not an international concern? NASA’s web sites states "Debris left in orbits below 370 miles (600 km) normally fall back to Earth within several years. At altitudes of 500 miles (800 km), the time for orbital decay is often measured in decades - but it is still going to reenter at some point. (https://www.nasa.gov/news/debris_faq.html). The Australian-based Space Academy states "It has been estimated that of the 200 to 600 orbital reentries each year, about 20% may be large enough to have partially survived reentry and dropped at least some fragments on the Earth’s surface. This equates to an average of about 80 per year. " (https://www.spaceacademy.net.au/watch/debris/reentryhaz.htm). That’s based on the recent historical number of satellites. However, 80 percent vaporize and release emissions to the atmosphere and 20 percent hit the earth randomly. Isn’t that a concern to anyone?