Space — the Final Junkyard

Space — the Final Junkyard

Last month DoD released an updated space policy that officials said reflects how the environment has changed in recent years, specifically the emergence of non-state threats and the growing amount of derelict rockets and satellites — “space junk” — in orbit that pose a hazard to working systems, especially those launched and maintained by the United States.

According to the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, more than 21,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters exist in orbit, along with 500,000 smaller pieces and more than 1 million pieces smaller than 1 centimeter.

“Space capabilities have long provided strategic national security advantages for the United States,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a DoD press release. “This updated space policy institutionalizes the changes the department has made in an increasingly constrained budget environment to address the complex set of space-related opportunities and challenges.”

In the press release acting deputy SecDef for Space Policy John Plumb addressed what the policy refers to as “international norms of responsible behavior related to the space domain” saying interference with systems would be “irresponsible in peacetime and during a crisis could be escalatory. The policy states this very clearly and it’s a message we want to make sure people understand.”

Veiled threats might deter those who would target our systems with malice, but they won’t do much against dead objects hurtling around up there — space’s version of a dumb bomb. In fact back in 1978 NASA scientist Don Kessler warned of a doomsday scenario where a single collision causes a chain reaction of other collisions that wipe out everything after a couple of trips around the planet. (This scenario is known as the “Kessler Syndrome.”)

Read DoD’s new space policy document here.

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Is there a way to clean this mess ?

Solution to nuclear waste!!!!! Send it to Mars LOL

I always thought a large donut-shaped satellite coated in layers of Kevlar to catch debris on impact would be the best way to solve this problem. It should have thrusters so it could maneuver and catch objects like a baseball glove, then be sent into the atmosphere to be burned up after use. I’ve looked at some of the methods NASA has been examining to solve this problem. They have some pretty bizarre stuff like a satellite that spreads out a huge net. I’m sure they have much better minds than mine working on this though.

The DOD have become interested in the solar power satellite concept in recent years.

SPS is a great way to efficiently gather solar power. It’s unaffected by night and weather and changing angle of incidence, as constantly afflict terrestrial solar systems. And the incoming energy isn’t diminished by first transiting tens of kilometers of heavy atmosphere.

The International Space Station runs on cheap abundant space solar power. So do all modern satellites. (Decades ago, some satellites with very high internal power requirements were actually nuclear powered.)

But what really interests DOD is the concept for how the energy that is gathered on orbit would be then retransmitted to the surface. You need to re-emit it as a beam at certain gigahertz frequencies, because those frequencies are the least affected by atmospheric losses in the power downlink. That beam is then turned back into usable DC electricity groundside by a “rectenna”, a rectifying antenna.

And you can put that power downlink beam any place on the planetary surface where you want energy to be directly available and can lay out a rectenna grid. In the context of forward firebases in places like Afghanistan, such untethered power would be a colossal money saver. And a life saver.

Currently, providing energy to these remote outposts is horribly costly in both. Especially energy in the form of liquid fuels for vehicles. The logistics literature describes delivered costs on the order of $400/gallon. Yikes. And driving fuel tankers in the ambush and IED environment is not a popular job. Armoring entire tanker trucks to MRAP levels of protection is a nonstarter.

The USMC have moved aggressively to use terrestrial solar in such places to somewhat reduce their outside power requirements, but terrestrial solar won’t even come close to the amounts of power required to move a vehicle. An SPS powersat beam is several orders of magnitude more powerful. Armored vehicles with hybrid drivetrains could have their batteries charged by an SPS.


So that’s what you can use an SPS for militarily on the ground. But if you have serious independent power capacity available on-orbit, you can also then use it for other things.

Such as (getting back to the main point of the article) driving lasers to get rid of orbital debris. Small pieces can simply be burned to vapor. Larger pieces can be de-orbited by repeatedly and precisely taking small surface shots with the laser. They will lose orbital velocity incrementally from the ablated material blowing away from them (figure it out with the rocket equation in miniature). They will eventually fall into denser lower atmosphere and burn up.

You can also, rather obviously, use such on-orbit directed energy weapons as weapons per se. Either defensively, shooting down boosting ICBMs in Strategic Defense Initiative style, or offensively by plinking enemy comsats, navsats and spysats.

There will be shrieks of horror from the peacenik left, who point to Obama’s promise to them to “not weaponize space”. News flash: space is already to some degree weaponized and is becoming more so. Multiple players have ASAT capability. Satellite GPS and secure satcom are critical to ground military ops. And it’s the height of folly to refuse to extend military capabilities into new domains. It costs lives once combat begins.

Imagine hypothetically if FDR had shut down America’s fighter and bomber aircraft programs in the late 1930s, pledging to “not weaponize the air”. It would have been a national catastrophe once WWII began.

I suspect the only solution would be to orbit unmanned vehicles to push objects out of stable orbits into burnup trajectories. After a while you’d clean up the sky of the largest debris, but not all of it. It also presents the usual risks: scattering radioisotopes and the like when older satellites with nuclear power systems burn up.

Most space debris is on the small side, presenting a cleanup challenge. I suppose using a giant sail of kevlar and sweeping orbits is possible, though has a possibility of destroying active satellites.

“It also presents the usual risks: scattering radioisotopes and the like when older satellites with nuclear power systems burn up.”

You can simply boost those into high storage orbits. The old Soviet RORSATs were designed to do this at end-of-life.

Though this is not perfect. The retired Kosmos 1818 broke up in its storage orbit, possibly from a collision, possibly from a meteoroid hit, possibly from internal stresses. Some of its debris may be radioactive.

Other options: with high performance orbital tug vehicles, you could match orbits with old reactor based satellites. Have the tug boost the radioactive sat to an even higher orbit. Or to escape velocity. Expensive. But do-able.

Or, rendezvous with and encapsulate each old reactor powered sat with an inflatable heat shield and a small solid rocket motor for a deorbit burn. Drop them in an isolated ocean area for intact recovery and disposal. Also expensive. Yet also do-able.

However, it’s not as though there are a huge number of reactor powered sats on orbit. The vast majority of the orbital debris poses no radiohazard.

Good guestion; How many planets and other heavenly bodies has man left trash on them in the name of science. It would be nice if we could de-orbitize this junk and have it burn up on the way back to earth. However we found out from the space shuttle break, the rocket that had to be shot down coming in from space and metors that not everything will burn up. So everybody is afraid to design what is needed to clean up the mess. So one of two things will happen before any effort is considered to remove this junk. A major lost of life or an indiffinet moratorium on space launches until a plan come be made to clean up space. However being space belongs to everybody it will be all but impossible to get a concensus on what to do. I have wonder for many of year if space junk falling to earth are the stars falling to earth at the end of our age.

nah…better to send nuclear waste into the biggest nuclear reactor out there..the sun…lol

Remember the old show “Quark”? — just create a corps of space garbage trucks to circle around and scoop it all up!

exactly…space junk yards!!! space tow trucks!!! driven by death row types w/nothin’ to lose!!!! divvy ‘em all up into teams… on pay per view…get vegas involved…then re-enter ‘em all on the 4’th o’ jew-ly!! YEE-HAW!! YER WELCOME! $20 MIKE SAID THAT…

This post is partly correct. The trouble with forward base military uses is that for the best microwave wavelength that gets through the atmosphere, the smallest practical size is way larger than what the military needs. Lasers scale to smaller sizes, but you have the same problem of clouds blocking the beam as you do with sunlight.

Lasers are really useful for propulsion though. Building one power sat to drive the lasers gets the cost to GEO down to under $100/kg. Propulsion lasers sized to build power sats (500,000 tons per year) will make very short work of the 6000 tons or so of space junk, either vaporizing it so light pressure can blow it away or dumping it into the atmosphere.

The lasers are unavoidably weapons, not only against space targets but (on a clear day) they obsolete all military hardware.

I suspect the Chinese will decide to do them for building power satellites. (See the recent deal with India.) How the US will react is anyone’s guess.

The Chinese certainly didn’t help matters when they took out their “weather satellite” in its ASAT test a few years ago (fairly high altitude). The debris field has spread far and wide, and will be there for decades. Ironically, they stupidly made space travel (and access) for themselves more dangerous in the process.

At least the one we took out was in very low orbit and has largely gone away.

Until the output is enough to compensate for atmospheric losses, it’s hard to imagine a laser that could be carried up in a rocket that could have enough power to do something interesting on the ground. I wonder how precisely a satellite can be pivoted to hit a target on the ground: though if Hubble can be kept effectively still long enough to point at a part of space to collect imagery without artifacting, it must be an amazingly stable platform.

It’s not “a” rocket. The laser installation and power plant might mass 35,000 tons in GEO. If the average flight delivered 10 tons, it would take 3500 flights to get it in place. We are talking about 3.5 GW of laser, plenty to put 54 tons in LEO every 20 minutes.

The jitter in the pointing is expected to be around a meter at the LEO to GEO distance. Same as Hubble. I had my doubts about tracking, but the whole path is only 11 deg and the people who did much of the SDI work dismiss my concerns about tracking.

Refund NASA/USAF to destroy them

We screw up the earth and now space. What’s next? Mars?

Does anybody believe that the graphic accompanying this article is anything close to a realistic depiction of the density of objects in orbit? It implies the size of the objects and their density are many orders of magnitude greater than reality. Yet these cartoons keep showing up, and naive reviewers take a big gulp. Orbital debris is a real problem in some places, but this graphic is irresponsible, in my opinion.

No, of course not. Most of those dots are mostly for show, just showing location and quantity. But there is a lot of junk out there, and if we plan to travel behond our solar system some day in the future, we are going to have to clean this up.

I always thought a lot of this would fall back to earth when their orbit decayed and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, I was wrong on that one. If we are going to be true stewards of this planet, we have to be more responsible than what we are now. We as humans are very wasteful, thats a fact, we need to invest more in recycling, and figure out how to reuse some of this waste to our benefit. Call me a tree hugger if you want, frankly speaking, I don’t give a da-n. I would rather hug a tree than hug debris.

The graphic can’t be realistic. The junk is way too small to be visible at that scale.

On the other hand, there is only 6000 tons of it. The propulsion lasers for a minimum sized power satellite construction project would be capable of lifting 500,000 tons per year to GEO. They would make very short work of the space junk, either vaporizing it or changing the orbit enough to put it in useful places or dump it into the atmosphere.

If we do build power satellites, I have suggested that we send the 100th one to Mars. (At 20 5 GW plants per year that only takes 5 years to get to the 100th power sat.) That’s sending 25,000 tons to Mars, and it’s enough to support tens of tons per hour to and from the Martian surface plus powering rockets to and from Earth.

Anyone interested in a vacation on Mars?

If we can get the cost of lifting parts to GEO down into the $100/kg range, then the cost of clean energy from space goes down to where it becomes easy to recycle virtually everything.

It’s not without problems though. Propulsion lasers are unavoidably weapons. Near as I can see, they obsolete all current military hardware. On the other hand, they end resource shortages which are the ultimate cause of wars.

At last! Proof of manmade global warming!

With all the energy used to get the stuff up there isn’t there any use for it to build something rather than destroy it. Nuts, bolts, tanks, sheet metal, wiring, relays, power plants, solar collectors, insulation start a space recycle/junk yard.

All mass at GEO is useful for power satellites. If nothing else, it’s useful for space anchors, takes a ton mass on 600 km of string to keep the transmitting antennas pointed toward the earth.

We ar ther and bheen doing that for decades, that is screwing up Mars. Howe many dead science projects do we have up tere now and only two working one plus all of the delivery vechiles. Moon we already started on that one two. How about Venus we have a fly by going there already or have we landed something there already?

Sorry about the mis spellings above still learning this little key board.

It’s an awfully expensive way to dispose of waste, considering launch costs on the order of $100K per pound…and that’s just to Low Earth Orbit. It’s considerably more to achieve an Earth escape trajectory to Mars or the Sun.

What are the Ethics of Space Junk ?
What is the DOD’s position on Externalities ?
What is the DOD definition of Stewardship, Love, Decency, Humanity, Addiction, Parenting, Nutrition, Health , Wellness , Prostitution , Whoredom, Lying , GOD and EGO ?.….
Anyone? .….… Anyone ?.….….

Which DOD Russia, China, India, Israel, N. Korea, or the USA or any of the other countries that have put trash in space???

There are only a few proposals that scale large enough to displace fossil fuels. One of the most promising is power satellites hauled to GEO by laser propulsion, also located in GEO. The minimum size that makes any sense takes transporting half a million tons per year to GEO. In that context, getting rid of 6000 tons of space junk is a tiny and almost cost free easy to deal with problem.

Let’s spend more money on organic food instead of cleaning up space junk! /sarcasm

SFC Wallace … The space junk problem is not a nuclear waste issue, rather it is about very high speed collisions between debris and satellites, and those collisions creating more debris, leading to more collisions.

As for the nuclear waste issue that you bring up, the material came from the ground, and the smart place to store it is back in the ground, away from underground water, away from populated locations, but where you can keep it secured from undesired uses. Sending it into space adds the risk of a failed flight spreading the debris over portions of the earth where you wouldn’t want it spread.

…that is exactly what I do here in the park, hugh a tree from time to time. I have given up on the human race, not all of them but those that think they have to re-organize the world for us. Look at the bloody mess they get us into, one would call them animals, but that would be an insult to the only innocent life still with us.


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