We all imagine space to be a desolate and empty place with nothing but thoughts to keep you company whilst orbiting the earth. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The space around our planet is now filled with rubbish. It’s hard to imagine that our local space is starting to look like a landfill site but this is actually the case. A combination of defunct satellites, rubbish jettisoned from the International Space Station and rocket boosters used to get the shuttle into space all float around in our orbit without a place or purpose.
Whilst this doesn’t seem like much of a problem, the area around planet Earth is becoming congested with large amounts of space junk which poses some serious problems for current and future space missions. These pieces which are left in space are held in the Earth’s orbit and float around on their own accord posing a threat to working satellites and the ISS itself. If a large enough piece of space junk was to knock a satellite out of its planned orbit this would render this expensive piece of equipment effectively useless.
British scientists are currently working on a way to clean up space and create a safe environment for future missions into the space in our planet’s orbit. By using specially designed satellites armed with laser guided harpoons, space junk could be intercepted then dragged into earth’s atmosphere to be burned up on re-entry. Many of the risks of space junk had been completely theoretical until 2009 when an unused Russian satellite collided with an operational weather satellite causing tens of millions of dollars damage. Space waste disposal is now becoming a real concern as with an average speed of 25,000kph even a nut or bolt can have serious consequences if it were to collide with other space equipment.
With over 4,900 rocket launches since the beginning of the space race, this has left over 23,000 pieces of space debris in Earth’s orbital space. With only a finite area to dispose of waste when in space now is the time for inventive solutions from our brightest minds to help keep space safe and clean.