Thousands of tiny satellites are about to go into space and possibly ruin it forever

Thousands of tiny satellites are about to go into space and possibly ruin it forever
By Avi Selk
Apr 21 2017
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/04/21/thousands-of-tiny-satellites-are-about-to-go-into-space-and-possibly-ruin-it-forever/

Halfway through the European Space Agency’s new film, we’re at the part where — if this were some happy space documentary from yesteryear — Carl Sagan might be giving us a tour of a distant galaxy.

But it’s 2017, Sagan is dead, and this is a film about space trash. So six minutes in, we’re stuck a mere 800 miles above Earth, watching a wasp swarm of defunct satellites whip around the globe to a frenetic soundtrack that sounds like the end of “The Dark Knight.”

It’s a dramatic simulation of what low Earth orbit looks like today. You can even watch it in 3-D. Because the European Space Agency really, really wants you to pay attention to the space debris problem.

The problem is about to get worse, experts say, as cheap, tiny satellites are shot through the stratosphere in unprecedented numbers.

Worst-case scenario: a massive, unstoppable, chain-reaction traffic wreck above our heads. So much for escaping Earth to distant galaxies.

The short film “Space Debris: A Journey to Earth” was screened this week in Germany at the world’s largest annual gathering of space-debris experts.

The news from space was not great.

Hundreds of thousands of bits of space junk are orbiting Earth, according to NASA. These include tiny paint flecks that can take out a space shuttle window, and some 2,000 satellite shards left by a collision of Russian and American satellites several years ago.

In Germany, the audience was shown a slide from another depressing space film, “Gravity.” The part where the International Space Station is destroyed in an avalanche of space trash.

“There were many mistakes in that movie; I will not go through that,” ESA Director General Jan Woerner said. “But the effect, as such, is a very serious one.”

Woerner cut to video from the real International Space Station, which has not yet been destroyed.

Bobbing around in zero gravity, astronaut Thomas Pesquet described what the space station crew has to do when a piece of debris whizzes past: Climb into an escape shuttle, wait and hope.

“This happened four times,” Pesquet said. “In my own interests, let me wish you a successful conference.”

[snip]

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