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How Much Space Debris Orbits Earth?

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The image above is an illustration of all of Earth’s orbiting debris. It’s a bit tough to fathom, but here goes. The sphere in the center is Earth, and all of the white dots are the countless pieces of debris that are constantly in orbit around our planet. So, how much debris is there?

According to NASA, there are more than 100 million particles orbiting Earth. Keep in mind that most of that debris is smaller than a penny, but still, that’s a lot of “space trash.” Tens of thousands of those pieces are larger than a foot in diameter. And they’re all whizzing around space at no less than 4 miles per second. PER SECOND!

Where does all of that debris come from?

Simply put, it’s paint flakes, bolts, human waste, meteoroids … etc. More officially, NASA says that space debris comes from parts of old spacecraft, upper stages of launch vehicles, carriers for multiple payloads, debris intentionally released during spacecraft separation from its launch vehicle or during mission operations, debris created as a result of spacecraft or upper stage explosions or collisions, solid rocket motor effluents, and tiny flecks of paint released by thermal stress or small particle impacts.

Learn more about orbital debris here.

Scientists and researchers are working hard to create ways to “clean up” in space. Here are a few of the coolest — and craziest — options for making space cleaner and safer.

NASA’s ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator:
This spacecraft would maneuver into position next to an object in space, and lasso the debris with a lightweight net. EDDE weighs just 220 pounds and should be ready for a test flight by 2015.

Clean Space One:
A massive satellite with a giant spidery hand that grabs space junk and hurtles through the Earth’s atmosphere, where the debris will eventually burn up. At a cost of about $11 million, Swiss scientists expect Clean Space One to launch within five years.

Laser Orbital Debris Removal:
This is possibly the most awesome method for cleaning the debris. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Giant high-powered lasers on Earth would fire toward space debris, causing them to lose velocity and fall safely down into the atmosphere.

Wall of Water
This method would launch rockets full of water into space, where the rockets would release their payload to create a wall of water. That wall would create a carrier that orbiting junk would bump into, slow down, and fall out of orbit. THis option is especially cheap, because the water rockets would utilize old decommissioned missiles.

Sticky Booms:
A company in Colorado is developing a robotic arm system called a “sticky boom”, which can extend up to 100 feet, and uses an adhesive gripper mechanism to clamp onto debris. The Sticky Boom would be attached to space craft like the International Space Station.

9781613745441_p0_v1_s260x420Do you have any better ideas? Come up with your own creative method for cleaning up space debris in the form below.

I’ll pick the best solution next week, and the winner will receive a copy of “Beyond the Solar System,” an excellent interactive book about the history of space.

 

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