Obscure Dangers of Spaceflight: Space Junk

Obscure Dangers of Spaceflight: Space Junk

In part two of this six part series, we will be looking at the fifth of the top six obscure dangers involved in human spaceflight. In our first installment (located here – Obscure Dangers of Spaceflight: Moon Dust) we saw how deadly moon dust could be. Today, we are going to take a look at the threat posed by paint chips and stray bolts that are out there, orbiting the Earth.

An Orbital Junkyard

It’s the very last thing that you might think of when you think of outer space. Still, it’s one of the first things that engineers, astronauts, and administrators at NASA have to worry about. Floating junk, spread throughout various orbits, surrounding the planet like a suffocating cloud. Millions of tiny pieces of debris, hurtling around at speeds most of us could only dream of, waiting to smash into the very creatures that put it up there; Humans.
Most of the time when we see a successful launch of something into outer space, we also see ourselves as successfully adding to the junkyard that surrounds the planet. Not only are there bolts, nuts, and paint chips out there, but there are entire spacecrafts that no longer work. In fact, Vanguard 1, which was launched fifty years ago, is still orbiting the planet and is expected to continue on its course for well over two hundred more years before it finally falls to its destruction in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Some of the common space debris up there includes broken satellites, spent rocket stages, and even needles; all of it reminding us that we are not only good at reaching out and taking our first steps into space, but also at being a bunch of galactic litter bugs.

When Dust Can Kill

Anyone with common sense can see how a run-in with an old rocket booster can be deadly, but a chip of paint? Or a speck of dust? It’s hard to see just how these tiny specks could pose a threat to you, the explorer.
When most people think of tiny specks of space debris, they often see something akin to a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cue the lights…
A small piece of scrap metal, something left over from the second stage of the rocket that propelled man first to the moon, floats peacefully through the blackness of space like a feather in a calm, ocean breeze while The Blue Danube plays in the background. As the sun rises over the horizon of the darkened planet below, light glimmers off the surface adding another twinkling star to the sky.
If that’s what you are thinking, then stop right now. In the real world, that tiny piece of scrap metal would be traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour. What you should be imagining is that same piece of scrap metal crashing into mid sized spacecraft and totally debilitating it. Because that’s exactly what would happen.
Because at 17,000 miles an hour, that tiny speck of dust is a lot scarier.

Floating over our heads this very minute is over five and a half tons of space debris. Broken down, that’s about 600,000 individual objects, each larger than one centimeter. The scary part about it is that only a very small fraction of this amount is actually being tracked by humans.
Modern technology allows today’s spacecraft to deflect objects that are smaller than that one centimeter, but for anything larger, the craft would have to move out of the way. And the only way that you can move out of the way of something is if you know that something is headed your way. Unfortunately, the liklihood of knowing beforehand is slim to none.

Natural Space Junk

The real kicker about this space danger is that even if Humans began cleaning up after themselves in space and we got rid of the manmade junk in space, there are still plenty of other natural bits and pieces of junk shooting around the galaxy at breakneck speeds in the form of cosmic dust.
And cosmic dust is just what it sounds like; teeny-tiny little particles of dust much like that which covers your shelves at home. Instead of coming from dead skin cells and leftover hair, however, cosmic dust comes from the remnants of stars, planets, and asteroids.
But in the end, it is still just dust. Dust that is traveling around in speeds in excess of 20,000 miles an hour.
Any scientist, NASA or otherwise, will tell you that its not the dust particles itself that we have to worry about, but the particle’s uncanny ability to find other, similar particles in the so called vacuum of space and join together to form a dust cloud.
A dust cloud???
Yep. Just like the Haboob of the Middle East, these cosmic dust clouds rip through the galaxy leaving destruction in their path. In 1967, NASA scientists got a first hand view of just how powerful, and devastating these clouds could be. What was described as a ‘shower of meteoroids far more intense and numerous than any of the Earth’s observable meteor showers’, left the Mariner 4 spacecraft adrift and in ruins. The force of the impact had pushed the satellite off course and ripped it open to die a slow death.

Which is not what future space travelers have to look forward to. In fact, one such cloud would devastate the modern International Space Station; causing structural failures that would claim the lives of everyone aboard.

So this is the face of what future space travelers will have to look out for. Not the hostile alien race of the week, but trash and cosmic dust storms fully capable of laying waste to their only ride home.

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