There are over 17,000 NORAD catalogued pieces of space debris between 5-50 centimeters encircling our planet, and this amount is exponentially growing. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites, successfully spiking this number, and it’s predicted that the large debris existing will become untraceable pieces of small debris in the future. There is a five times predicted increase in the NORAD catalog in the next few years.
The Society of Physics Students invited Professor Robert D. Culp from the University of Colorado to give a science seminar—”Space Debris—Past, Present, Future”—on Wednesday, October 5 from 12-1 in AC-104. Free pizza and pop was provided, and the room was packed as Culp offered an enlightening presentation on space debris. He began with discussing the nature of debris. Right now, there are 6000 tons of “large mass” debris (satellites, etc.) in space; that’s 99 percent of space debris. The other 1 percent is fragmented, small debris resulting from explosions, collisions, normal operations, and deterioration over time. These are untraceable, and very hazardous to working operations.
Culp went on to discuss feasible solutions to the growing problem in space. Protecting from untraceable debris could mean new satellite design, shielding, and proper orbital selection. As for tracked and catalogued debris, differing by altitude, the plan is to increase our ability to catalog and track, along with avoiding debris by choosing orbits and improving system maneuvering capability. The general rule here is SSA—Space Situational Awareness. It goes further, though. As debris amalgamates, it is important to remove old masses (specifically within 25 years of placement), operate owned masses responsibly and focus on improving international mitigation compliances. Obstacles to this could include feisty rival countries, sub-par technology, the expense, politics, and of course, the divvying up of responsibility. Managing to remove these large masses is very central, so hopefully the politics won’t get in the way.
As for the technological advancement, this is why we need the engineers! In LEO (low earth orbit), drag additives have been used in the past to draw debris back into control. In GEO (geostationary orbit), there are 1200 tons of mass, and much debris has been lifted to disposal orbits; this is still a hazard, so scientists have turned to reigning it in. Using energy-change tactics with rockets, lasers, towing, and possibly electrostatic tractor force in the future, this debris can be managed. As for the University of Colorado, Culp added in that they are currently undergoing research on spectroscopy. Space debris is a growing issue, and definitely seems to be an interesting topic of research both now and in our future.

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