End of Space – Creating a Prison for Humanity

Space travel is the most exciting and challenging adventure humanity has ever undertaken. But, ironically, the more we go, the more we risk not being able to return. With each rocket launched and each satellite deployed, we are setting ourselves a trap which becomes more and more deadly each year. If unfortunately this happened, it could end the space age and trap us on our planet for decades, even centuries. Sending something into space is incredibly difficult. To do this, you have to move very, very quickly first straight up, in order to leave the atmosphere then, laterally, to start a kind of circle around the earth, always, very, very quickly. If you succeed, you can enter Earth's low orbit.

When we get into the orbit

And once in orbit, it is complicated to leave this orbit. Unless you have energy left, you're stuck here, falling around the Earth forever. It's perfect for things that have to stay up there, like space stations and satellites. That’s why we moved most of humanity’s space infrastructure to this place, just a few hundred kilometers above the surface, just high enough to make the atmosphere so thin that objects in orbit can stay for centuries before the air resistance slows them down enough to bring them back to Earth. But it is also the origin of our deadly trap.

Photo by Sem Hovingh on Unsplash

Rockets are actually metal cylinders containing large amounts of fuel. Once the fuel is used, the empty tanks are released to lighten the rocket. Some parts crash on Earth or burn in the atmosphere but most of the useless parts of the rocket stay put and start to orbit the planet. After decades of space travel, Earth's low orbit is a dumping ground for empty thrusters, broken satellites and millions of shards from missile tests and explosions. Right now, we know about 2,600 out of order satellites, 10,000 objects larger than an LCD screen 20,000 as big as an apple, 500,000 pieces the size of a ball and at least 100 million pieces so small that they can't be listed. This debris moves at speeds of up to 30,000 km / h, going around the Earth several times a day.

Orbital speeds are so high than being hit by a pea-sized debris is like being shot by a plasma cannon: 

At impact, debris evaporates and releases enough energy to drill holes in metal. In summary, we have covered the space around our planet with millions of deadly weapons. And we also put in a trillion dollar global infrastructure network directly into the danger zone. It performs tasks essential to the modern world: worldwide communication, GPS and guidance systems, meteorological data collection, asteroid research and all kinds of scientific discoveries. Things that we would miss a lot if they suddenly disappeared. If a single pea-sized debris hits one of our 1,100 operating satellites, it would be instantly destroyed. Each year, three or four satellites are destroyed in this way.

 With the number of satellites and the amount of debris in orbit expected to increase tenfold over the next decade, we are approaching a tipping point. The worst thing in space is not the waste itself, the worst would be an unstoppable chain reaction which would transform a large number of functional objects into waste, for example if two satellites collide under the appropriate conditions. If satellites collide, they will not stop and then fall into the atmosphere, it will instead cause a scattering in space.

Trash in the space: cascaded collisions

 Orbital speeds are so high let the pieces spray on each other, turning the two satellites into clouds of thousands of little things still fast enough to destroy other satellites. This could trigger the slowest and most destructive domino effect possible: cascaded collisions. Like a shotgun shot, each collision creates more projectiles. What was once just a tiny target and very unlikely to come into contact with anything becomes a real wall, eager for destruction. As more and more satellites are destroyed, destruction accelerates exponentially, ultimately destroying everything that was parked in orbit.

 But the space is very empty, the first collisions can therefore take a long time to occur. By the time we realize what's going on, it will be too late. One year, a satellite is destroyed; nothing serious. The following year, five. The following year, fifty. Until nothing is left.

Situation in orbit worsens rapidly and we may have already passed the point of no return. In 10 years, space around the Earth may no longer be viable for long-term satellites or rockets. The worst-case scenario is terrifying: a debris field made up of hundreds of millions of pieces far too small to list, traveling at 30,000 km / h. It would create a deadly barrier around the earth, maybe too dangerous to cross. Dreams of moon bases, Martian colonies or space travel could go back several centuries.

 And the loss of our space infrastructure would bring back some of the technology that we rely on daily in the 1970s. But it may not be too late to clean up our mess. Although the space industry has made strides to avoid space debris, these continue to grow rapidly and the missile tests did not show much interest. Some suggestions were proposed, some eccentric, others more serious, on how to quickly remove as much deadly space trash as possible without creating others in the process.

Capture / return missions:

Many ideas have been launched and some of the most serious involve capture / return missions; these are currently being tested. One method is to approach debris in orbit with a small satellite equipped with a net. Once caught, a small rocket would be used to bring it to Earth. Targets too large for a net could be caught with a harpoon at the end of a cable. Instead of launching a rocket, the cleaner would deploy a large sail to produce atmospheric friction and accelerate the deviation of the orbit. There are also many other extravagant propositions seemingly taken from a science fiction novel.

Some could use giant electromagnets. These tugs would operate by exploiting the magnetic components inside the satellites (which they use to stabilize and orient themselves in the Earth's magnetic field). It could be safer than nets and harpoons because there would be no need to come into contact with the debris, there would therefore be no risk of accidentally breaking the target into pieces. As for the smallest debris, lasers could be the key to pulverizing them completely.

 Satellites equipped with lasers would not need to approach their target, they could shoot them from afar. Large objects could not be totally destroyed this way but lasers could be used to put them out of harm's way by burning a small part in order to push them into a safer orbit. Whatever technology is ultimately used, we should do something quickly before a hundred million projectiles become a trillion and the trap closes. If we don't act, our space adventure could end before it even started. If our dream days of space exploration are numbered, let's use them wisely. One of the things we most enjoy spending our time on is learning more about our universe. And for that, stay connected.

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