Thursday, February 12, 2009

The new junkyard

A US and a Russian satellite have collided in space hundreds of miles above Earth in what is believed to be the first major crash of two spacecraft in orbit.

The collision - which occurred nearly 500 miles over Siberia on Tuesday - caused massive debris clouds to shoot out into the atmosphere and posed a risk to astronauts aboard the international space station.

At the beginning of this year there were roughly 17,000 pieces of manmade debris orbiting Earth. The items, at least 4 inches in size, are being tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network, which is operated by the military and which detected the two debris clouds created by the crash on Tuesday.

Litter in orbit has increased in recent years, in part because of the deliberate break-ups of old satellites.

It has gotten so bad that orbital debris is now the biggest threat to a space shuttle in flight, surpassing the dangers of lift-off and return to Earth. NASA is in regular touch with the Space Surveillance Network, to keep the space station a safe distance from any encroaching objects, and shuttles, too, when they’re flying.

Now that we have turned much of  the planet into a rubbish dump, we are doing the same with space. As my friend Pete says, "space is the final frontier". Once we've trashed space there is no where else to go.

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