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Light years from Yorkshire, but why is there so much 'space junk'?

YORKSHIRE may seem light years away from the happenings of outer space, but the spectacular collision between two US and Russian satellites has underlined space-watchers' fears of a James-Bond style doomsday scenario.

While the first-of-its kind smash, 500 miles above Siberia, might seemingly have the signature of 007's nemesis Ernst Blofeld, some experts have been chattering in trepidation for years about a potential domino-style doomsday effect in the heavens.

Many are now increasingly considering what to do with the swathe of space debris in orbit around the earth. Space junk caused in part by the break-ups of old satellites has increased to such an extent that it is now the biggest threat to astronauts and space missions.

At the beginning of 2009, about 17,000 man-made pieces of debris were orbiting Earth. The items, some as small as 10cm wide, are tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network – sending information to help spacecraft operators avoid the debris.

Of the 6,000 satellites sent into orbit since 1957, about 3,000 remain in operation, according to NASA.

Last month's orbital smash – the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce being struck by an out of control driver – sent a shiver down the spine of those scientists and space watchers who subscribe to the Kessler Syndrome. The effect describes how a collision of this magnitude could, in theory, start a chain reaction of smash after smash and send the junk, like snooker balls, careering across the baize of space.

At present, there's not much cause for alarm as there is still enough space between most satellites but in the future some fear escalating amounts of debris in orbit could be eventually making space travel unfeasible for future generations.

So how do we avoid catastrophe and clean up the flotsam and jetsam of space?

NASA uses a substance called aerogel, a polystyrene-like material to capture space dust for study. Multi-paned panels of aerogel in orbit could accumulate smaller pieces of space junk waste like attracting wasps to gummed paper. Once done, the interstellar fly paper could be rocketed into outer space.

More serious proposals made by boffins at the University of Arizona suggest a huge collector barge – a different type of 'space junk' – as being the solution, using robot arms to snag errant debris. And in true Star Wars fashion, others have suggested the possibility of using 'laser brooms' to sap up space flotsam.

Jeremy Close, from satellite specialists EADS Astrium UK, says while the recent collision was historically significant, a sense of perspective is paramount.

"It's important to keep a sense of perspective with regards to space. While, yes, the recent collision was the first of its kind in 40 years, and mindful of the fact that it might be, say, five years until it might happen again, with regards to the bigger picture, there's still a lot of space to go round," he said.

"Most satellites orbit in different planes – just as the moon does to the earth – making the chances of any collision – and certainly the theoretical Kessler effect – very small. There is in theory a slightly more elevated risk from those satellites that orbit in polar orbits, but again it is small."

WHO'S WHO OF THE SPACE RACE

The US Space Surveillance Network has been tracking space objects since 1957 when the Soviets opened the space age with the launch of Sputnik I.

The USSSN currently tracks more than 8,000 man-made orbiting objects. The space objects now orbiting Earth range from satellites weighing several tons to objects little more than the size of a baseball.

EADS Astrium is a major world player in the space industry specialising in satellites, space probes, launchers, orbital infrastructure, satellite services and interplanetary robotics. The company has 3,000 space engineers, scientists and technicians in the UK and a total workforce around the globe of some 12,000. people.

 
 
 

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