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Space Debris–Watch out!

February 19, 2012

So they’re finally sounding alarms about Kessler debris. The Kessler effect, for those new to the idea, is that as orbiting space junk collides it generates a large number of pieces, which will increase exponentially until it makes near-Earth space unusable. Space junk was the big problem for Homeworld Security (besides fighting aliens) in The Highest Frontier–and it returns with a big splash in Chapter One of my next book in the series.

But it’s already come home to roost (so to speak). So what do you think we should do?  Where’s the “celestial broom”?

On a more positive note, here are pix of some of my great friends from MIT and Boskone.

Melanie Berkmen, professor at Suffolk University, visiting her lab at MIT where she works with Alan Grossman. Melanie coauthored another paper we submitted with Kenyon students, on fluorescent imaging of bacterial pH.

David Hartwell, my editor at Tor Books, here selling books from his Dragon Press bookstore collection.

Larry Smith–the authors’ hero, hauls out our recent books for our convention appearances. At Boskone, The Highest Frontier sold out for him. 🙂

The one and only Charlie Stross. Expounding to us on “the corporation” in science fiction, and wearing his iconic shirt, “Tell lies for money.”

Kay Holt and Bart Leib, my two awesome friends at Crossed Genres.

Overall, a great con, with great friends and great fun. Hope to see you all at Boskone 2013!

8 Comments
  1. February 19, 2012 11:57 pm

    I like the idea of targeting bits of debris with high-energy lasers that will cause the debris to heat up, outgas, and change its orbit so it falls into the atmosphere and burns up.

  2. paws4thot permalink
    February 20, 2012 9:30 am

    Thanks for all the photos! 😀 Does Boskone always happen in February?

    {Meanwhile, back at the point 😉 }

    The key thing is to find ways of de-orbitting “dead” satellites before they can hit something and turn into shrapnel. You might try capturing them with retro boosters, or trying to get them to outgas on the sides that are down-orbit and out-orbit. One of those might be problematic if you’re dealing with something that has a spin on it though.

  3. JamesPadraicR permalink
    February 20, 2012 12:30 pm

    For some reason I was thinking about this subject a few days ago. Couldn’t come up with any answers, and am not particularly qualified to. So just thinking aloud…

    As paws4thot suggests, there should be a requirement for defunct satellites to be safely de-orbitted. But the real problem is the rest of the old junk. Just how can you you get rid of it? I’m sure “Big Honkin’ Space Magnets” wouldn’t work, and don’t know if an unmanned satellite would be able to maneuver to collect it–before running out of fuel and de-orbiting itself and its collection (which couldn’t be too large/massive, so maybe it would have to cause the larger scrap to de- orbit). Could lasers be used to slow the small bits, enough to cause it to re-enter?
    **
    Nice photos. Charlie was here in Colorado Springs for COSine a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I didn’t have a proper camera on me and used an iPod touch, so I got some Stross shaped blurs. But it was great to meet him.

  4. February 20, 2012 5:07 pm

    How about a really big sponge?

    I think that de-orbiting trash is, in general, a bad idea. When we want to build a space elevator, we’ll need as much mass as we can get for a counterweight. Any mass that we can use that’s already there doesn’t have to be lifted — which is always going to be expensive. So we have our “space tug” or “garbage wagon” or whatever haul the dead satellites to a parking orbit somewhere out of the way. L4/L5 points?

    • February 20, 2012 8:34 pm

      The counterweight sounds good to me. You’re right–while we’re spending so much energy getting mass into space, why not keep it there?
      Could a net or filter collect it?

    • paws4thot permalink
      February 21, 2012 4:37 am

      There have been shorts, and I think novellae (not aware of any full novels) written about this sort of “garbage collector” idea.

      It gives me another idea; how many “dead” satellites are broken and how many are just out of power? It should be possible to perform a rendezvous with some of the out of power ones and install new batteries. The issue here is obviously getting the rendezvous vehicle to use less power in getting to one or more rendezvous than it would take to launch replacement satellites.

      • February 21, 2012 12:27 pm

        Most of the “dead” satellites are dead because they’ve run out of things like fuel for attitude control. Refilling them sounds like a good idea, but the satellites aren’t designed for it. Also, by the time a satellite runs out of consumables, it’s usually obsolete.

        Now, if the satellites were *designed* to be refueled, it looks like a win to me. You could even make the satellites modular, so that they could be updated in orbit.

  5. February 20, 2012 8:42 pm

    I was thinking something similar to Steve: an aerogel or something. Basically, you need something that’s just tough enough to cause large-ish pieces to vaporize on impact. It’s how they shield the space station: the first layers aren’t designed to stop the object, they’re designed to break it into small enough pieces that the inner layers can stop it. The problem is that the space station shielding is heavy: a 2’x 3′ piece ways around 20 lbs (article). An anti-debris system needs to be many times lighter.

    In this case, we want the “sponge” to be a light material that turns the debris’ kinetic energy into thermal energy as quickly as possible, so that the debris fragments into pieces small enough that they can’t harm astronauts or satellites. Ideally, we also want the debris to shed enough forward momentum that gravity takes them down into the atmosphere. We also want the sponge to be able to do this hundreds of times before it falls apart.

    The issue with high energy debris lasers is that, in a slightly different light, they look a lot like high energy anti-satellite lasers. Aside from the small problem of targeting fast-moving debris, the real problem with such lasers is that they’d give the US (or China, or Russia) the notion that they could take out the other sides’ military and GPS satellites without losing their own to the resulting debris. That might destabilize things a bit, especially given how dependent the world has become on satellites..

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