Last Updated: 10/09/2013*

It’s the problem that’s hanging over the world’s head – literally.

Space debris is in the spotlight again, thanks to a recent collision in orbit, a forum in Washington and a new movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The government says there are more than 300,000 pieces of junk out there.

“These things are traveling at thousands of miles an hour,” said former astronaut Robert Curbeam, who now works for Raytheon. “A small item impacting your spacecraft at 17,000 miles an hour can ruin your day.”

Robert Curbeam participates in a spacewalk. Curbeam performed seven spacewalks during his NASA career, including four on a single mission. (Photo credit: NASA)
Robert Curbeam participates in a spacewalk. Curbeam performed seven spacewalks during his NASA career, including four on a single mission. (Photo credit: NASA)

The problem is as old as human space flight, but it’s becoming worse -- and attracting more attention. Warner Brothers’ “Gravity” tells the story of two astronauts who are stranded in orbit after their shuttle is destroyed by space junk.

The script may have been written in Hollywood, but the idea behind it could have come from recent headlines. In May, Ecuador’s first satellite was damaged by a three-decade-old fragment of a Russian rocket. And in 2009, a commercially owned communications satellite was clobbered by a defunct Russian satellite, destroying both and scattering hundreds of additional pieces of junk across space.

“The threat is ever-growing,” Curbeam said.

That danger was a key topic at the non-profit Space Foundation's forum in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 8. Curbeam and other panelists discussed measures to monitor debris, including Space Fence, a new radar system the U.S. Air Force wants to purchase.

The government’s existing systems only track a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of man-made objects orbiting the planet. And that worries people like Curbeam.

“Having done space walks along the outside of the space station and seeing the damage caused by a micro-meteorite the size of a grain of sand, I can’t imagine if it was a large object that actually hit the vehicle. That would be pretty ugly,” Curbeam said.

With Space Fence in place tracking and cataloging hundreds of thousands of space objects, astronauts and satellite controllers will have ample warning of an impending collision, giving them time to maneuver their spacecraft out of the way.

That ability will benefit people around the world, Curbeam said.

“Someone is counting on those space systems to work,” he said. “It may be one of our warfighters. It may be a farmer in a field who’s looking on a better prediction for a crop. It may be the Hubble space telescope, which our astrophysicists use every day to collect scientific data from faraway solar systems.”

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