Fortunately, space is big and collisions are still very rare.
Dr. Hugh Lewis
Dr. Lewis leads the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton and he’s an expert on space debris. For over ten years he’s been simulating and modeling the space debris environment. He knows better than most what’s circling mother earth and the news isn’t good. Since the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, nations and private enterprises have created a massive orbiting junkyard above the planet. The U.S. Air Force is currently tracking about 20,000 pieces of debris 4 inches in diameter or larger—roughly the size of a softball. Though too small to track, NASA estimates there are about 500,000 bits of marble sized debris in orbit. The sources of the space junk are varied. The biggest pieces are defunct satellites that have outlived their missions. Another source comes from the same kinds of things we misplace at home. Astronaut Ed White famously lost a glove during a spacewalk in 1965. Later, Mike Collins upped the ante when he lost a camera during his Gemini 10 spacewalk. Poor judgment can be a factor as well. In 2007, the Chinese inexplicably destroyed one of their satellites with a missile. That action alone created more than 3,000 trackable bits of debris and about 150,000 smaller pieces of 1cm or more. Chance can play a part too. In 2009, a long dormant Russian military satellite collided with one owned by the communications firm Iridium. The collision added another 1,300 trackable objects to the space debris field.
If this was an aesthetic problem, say on the scale of the average garage, it would be one thing, but stakes are much higher. Not long ago, astronauts on the International Space Station evacuated to their Soyuz capsule when debris came threateningly close. Though NASA was unable to estimate the size of the object, even small debris traveling at 17,500 miles an hour could breach the hull. Scientists calculate that there is a 1 in 100 chance of having to evacuate the space station because of debris in every six month period. Dr. Lewis has estimated that within the next 50 years we can expect to see 5-10 major collisions that will further add to the debris field. More ominously, NASA estimates that between now and 2020 when the space station is retired, there is a 1 in 12 chance of losing an astronaut during a spacewalk when even a fleck of paint could pierce a pressure suit. Though many solutions have been suggested—everything from lasers to Nerf-like balls to vertical puffs of air—nothing has yet proven effective.
Orbiting debris is a definite threat to our exploitation of space, but those of us on terra firma don’t have to worry too much about colliding with space junk. Far more threatening is the debris that orbits our personal space. No one can avoid it. The simple act of living generates an emotional and intellectual debris field that we carry with us all the time. From the trackable objects like our insecurities, fears and intolerances to the fleck-like attitudes and assumptions that govern our actions, we are at risk of collision. And the greatest danger is that we’ll collide with ourselves. Our personal space debris can keep us from accepting or sharing our true nature. It can manifest in many ways. Maybe it’s a reluctance to take on an opportunity that carries some risk. It might be a tendency to always question your worthiness for success, recognition or love. It might be an unwillingness to admit a mistake or to become envious of other’s success. Whatever debris is for you, start tracking it now and take evasive action when collision seems certain. Whether it’s space junk or your junk, it’s wholly unnecessary. Don’t keep it for another day! —Ebert