12 January 2013

Orbital Debris

There is a lot of crap floating around the Earth right now. Much of it is from old spacecraft or satellites (and by 'satellite' I mean a man made thing hurled into orbit on purpose) that have collided and broken apart. In addition to the useless junk that's currently orbiting our marble, there is a plethora of satellites surrounding us. How many?

According to NASA's FAQ page about debris, there is currently about 21,000 bits larger than 10 cm, around 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm, and a whopping 100 million plus itty bitty particles less than 1 cm. That's a lot of useless junk. In addition to that stuff that serves no useful purpose any more, there is approximately 5,000 functioning satellites hurtling around up there. I have to say that last number was hard to find, I was unable to find a definitive number anywhere on the Internet. Ok, I didn't look very hard and got frustrated and gave up. There was a lot of argument about exactly what a satellite is or what purpose it serves that got in the way of an answer to how much stuff is up there.

Along with this frustrating jaunt into the Googleverse, I was searching for anyone to have linked the amount of orbiting stuff to global warming. What I found was articles on how global warming is effecting the satellites...but what I wanted to know was how the satellites are effecting global warming.

The first satellite was sent up into orbit in 1957, since then about 200 per year have been added (which would give a number of about 11,000 launched satellites...double the number that is said to be up there, do we lose that many to collisions?). So if there are hundreds of millions of bits of debris surrounding Earth, and thousands of operational satellites in the mix, isn't it possible that these bits are creating global warming?

And what I mean by that is the sun warms our little rock by shining on it. These rays are absorbed by everything from trees to oceans to man made structures to living beings, and then reflected back into the atmosphere. Simplistic explanation, yes, I know. So if the heat is reflected off the Earth, is it possible the reflected heat gets to the orbiting debris and stuff...and then is reflected from that stuff back into the atmosphere? So imagine the sun's rays hitting the Earth, bouncing back into space, hitting the space junk, bouncing back to Earth, and so on. Could this be a factor in global warming? Maybe not in 1957 as there was one little satellite orbiting our planet, but now with so much stuff between us and the sun? 

This also begs the question: are the sun's rays weaker than they were in 1957 because they can't reach the surface of the Earth due to the interference of all the space debris? Is my theory of global warming inaccurate because the sun isn't able to heat the Earth with the same intensity as it was before we cluttered up our atmosphere? 

Is all this clutter one of the reasons the space program has stalled? It is tricky enough gauging the exit of the Earth's gravity and atmosphere, and now they must consider dodging all the debris. Any object 10 cm or greater can cause a lot of damage to something if it is travelling at a rate of 7 km/hr or greater, which it is in space (generally speaking, of course). So are we unable to explore our galaxy because it is too difficult to avoid collision with the stuff we sent out to explore our galaxy?

And now my brain is full. Time to look at funny pictures of cats.

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