Space exploration isn’t exactly the tidiest activity. In fact, the area just outside of our immediate atmosphere is riddled with “space junk.” This collection of orbiting debris is made up of parts of satellites, rocket debris and even some abandoned spacecraft. It’s becoming so prevalent that future missions could be impeded by the amount of debris circling the planet.
That’s an important consideration given what the world’s space agencies have planned. With Mars in the sites, the first stepping stone is putting man back on the moon, and that means there’s going to be a lot of traffic entering and leaving our atmosphere.
Estimates made by the United States’ Strategic Command place the number of floating objects in space at almost 18,000. All of those objects have the potential to wreak some serious havoc on spacecraft.
The concern about floating space debris was first brought up in the 70’s and was labeled “The Kessler Syndrome” after the doctor that first raised the issue. The official document presented by Dr. Kessler essentially says that the floating debris could reach a point where it would prevent any future spacecraft from safely leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. The question is whether or not we’re actually at that point.
The good news is that NASA has a team that focuses on monitoring that space debris and provides assessments for potential impact with manned craft during launches. The team uses sophisticated radar and telescopes to analyze the movement of the debris. In addition, the team provides risk assessments for objects that are re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, too.
If the issue becomes too severe, future space missions will likely be focused on the removal of this debris. For now, those who work for the NASA team tasked with the issue—known as the HyperVelocity Impact Technology (HVIT) Group—concentrate on outfitting craft with technology that will help handle impacts with floating objects. For now, no craft goes up that isn’t tested and determined to be able to reliably handle impact with floating debris. The real question is how much longer before more drastic
measures will need to be taken.