Saturday, June 11, 2022

Space Junk

In November Russia fired a missile at one of its own satellites, exploding it into over 1,500 pieces of large orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris. This debris caused pandemonium aboard the International Space Station, where the seven crew members were forced to shelter in capsules. Luckily (and purely by chance) the debris passed by the ISS without causing any damage. This incident has highlighted the growing problem of space junk.

In How Space Debris Threatens Modern Life the Financial Times explores the growing problem of pollution in Earth's low orbit. According to NASA there is around 9,000 tonnes of debris now floating around Earth at speeds of up to 25,000 km an hour. In its scrollytelling visualization the Financial Times maps out the tens of thousands of satellites now in low Earth orbit and explores some of the dangers to modern life from the increasing amount of junk accompanying those still active satellites. 

Astrophysicist Donald J Kessler's theory the 'Kessler Syndrome' predicts that as collisions in space occur they will create more and more debris. This increasing amount of space debris will then cause even more collisions until soon a chain reaction of collisions will make low Earth orbit hard to access, preventing manned spacecraft from leaving Earth's orbit. As part of its exploration of space junk the Financial Times looks at the damage that can be caused by even a fleck of paint traveling around Earth at over ten times the speed of a bullet.

You can learn more about the thousands of man-made objects in orbit around the earth on 'What Goes Up'. What Goes Up takes you on a guided tour of the history of the Earth's conquest of near space, from the oldest object still in orbit (the Vanguard 1 satellite launched in 1958), through the start of the construction of the International Space Station in the late 1990's, to the current mass space littering by Elon Musk. 

The interactive 3D map which accompanies this guided tour shows the location of all these thousands of objects currently orbiting the Earth. If you mouse-over any of the satellites shown on this map you can view details about when it was launched and by which country. You can also discover what type of satellite it is.



Satellites is another visualization of the man-made debris which is currently floating in orbit around planet Earth. This 3D globe shows 10,000 orbiting objects that are tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.

There are currently tens of thousands of objects, mostly rocket bodies, debris, and satellites in orbit around our planet. This map simulates around 10,000 of those objects orbiting the Earth based on real data. Three different types of man-made object are shown on the map, these are designated as Payload, Debris or Rocket Body. These three different types of object are represented on the map by different shapes. If you select an object on the map you can also see what type of object it is and more details from its entry on the Space Track database.

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