Science & Tech

Star trash

  What becomes of the stuff we send up into space? And where does it go when it comes back down again?
  • Jan 29, 2021
  • 535 words
  • 3 minutes
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There’s space junk in the sky. And there’s space junk in the sea.

In the 60 years since people have been sending technology into space, the Earth’s orbit has started to resemble a cosmic landfill. According to the European Space Agency, there are 34,000 “debris objects” in orbit that are larger than 10 centimetres, 900,000 debris objects between one and 10 centimetres — and a staggering 128 million debris objects ranging from one millimetre to one centimetre in size. In all, more than 8,800 tonnes of objects are drifting in the inky darkness around our planet.

This “orbital debris” ranges from intact satellites to bits of satellites to parts of rockets and other small pieces that have detached from larger items, whether by accident or on purpose as part of launch procedures. These objects cost billions of dollars to put there — and often it’s cheaper to leave them floating around than to maintain or retrieve them.

Various satellites are monitoring the space debris situation, including the Canadian satellites Sapphire and NEOSSat. “It’s a complex thing to do,” says Michel Doyon, who manages the satellites under the control of the Canadian Space Agency. “There are a bunch of objects orbiting around the Earth, travelling at about eight kilometres per second in all directions with little to no position or velocity control.”

Some bits of space junk are incinerated as they fall from orbit through the atmosphere — such as Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which ran out of battery several weeks after it launched, then orbited silently above Earth for a couple of months before burning up on re-entry.

But not all objects meet a fiery demise. Some end up in the depths of the ocean — a carefully coordinated effort by global space agencies to ensure the safe re-entry of the items that don’t burn up. Point Nemo, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is more than 1,600 kilometres from the nearest tiny island and located between New Zealand, Antarctica and the west coast of South America. Named after Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Point Nemo was discovered by Canadian-Croatian geographer Hrvoje Lukatela in 1992. The zone is better known to space agencies as the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area — and as a result of its remoteness, it has become a spacecraft cemetery.

Between 1971 and 2016, 263 decommissioned spacecraft were deposited here — a process fine-tuned by space agencies to minimize damage from old space technology. This point of inaccessibility is out of the way of shipping lanes, and there’s not much flora or fauna either, due to its distance from ocean upwelling systems. Only a few audacious creatures, such as yeti crabs, eke out their deep-sea survival around hydrothermal vents. The current International Space Station is likely to be the next denizen of this space junk graveyard when its mission is completed, likely between 2028 and 2040.

Check out this graphic for a sense of how the scale of our penchant for creating trash is now out of this world.

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