Meet the heroes keeping us safe from space junk
J Thoendell stashed this in Space
In the half-century after Sputnik kicked off the space race, orbital debris increased at a gradual, linear rate. The exploding Chinese satellite, however, created a huge spike in that rate; so did a 2009 collision between the Iridium 33 communications satellite and a long out-of-use Russian satellite. Previously, “space junk” mostly meant the cast-offs from launch vehicles—engines and other equipment used to get satellites into orbit, then discarded. But the two satellite incidents changed the game: Orbital space debris has reached a “tipping point,” according to a 2011 report by the National Research Council, potentially threatening our modern, satellite-based communications systems.
Luckily, while the destruction in Gravity happened in minutes, the real-life problem has been building for decades, and there’s time to do something about space junk. A growing international community works tirelessly to keep the world’s spacecraft safe. From a military agency tracking nearly everything in the sky to a sprawling network of researchers developing sci-fi technologies to vaporize orbital garbage, humanity is finally starting to solve the problem.
In March 2012, the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station awoke to a potentially dire alert. A piece of debris from the Iridium satellite crash three years prior was careening perilously close to the station.
They quickly began evacuation procedures, getting as far as loading into the Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the facility before receiving the all clear. In orbital terms, the nine-mile gap between the station’s position and the space junk whizzing by was barely a hair’s breadth. In a dozen years, it was the third time the station’s occupants had loaded into the escape pods. A year before, the gap between the station and a piece of debris was a breathtakingly close 1,100 feet.
"While the destruction in Gravity happened in minutes, the real-life problem has been building for decades."
Geez, I had no idea how big a problem this actually is!