Above the Surface: Our Trash Satellites
We live in a world where we purposely load tons of discarded trash into the planet's crust as a method of getting rid of what we don't want or have no method of reusing. As humans look for additional places on Earth to store various forms of waste, have you ever stopped to think about that which is orbiting our planet? According to NASA, there are over 21,000 pieces of trash that measure approximately four-inches in diameter floating above our heads at this very moment - which is only a small portion of the whole.
Although most of these pieces of trash are simply metal components from various remnants of space launches, they can pose as much of a treat to humankind as the trash here on Earth. One of the more disturbing facts is that the debris is estimated to triple in density by 2030. What does this mean for the future of humanity?
1. Telecommunications - A vast majority of our communications come from a satellite network in space. Although the density of orbiting trash isn't enough to disrupt signals that are broadcast yet, these bits of trash pose a threat as projectiles that can damage sensitive equipment. If one of these satellites is damaged to the point of rendering it inoperable, we simply send another one to replace it - increasing the amount of debris yet again.
2. Astronaut Safety - If you figure in that there are roughly half a million pieces of debris that are floating around Earth in various sizes all traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, the threat to human life while in orbit is amazingly high. For example, the Winchester .223 Super Short Magnum bullet can travel at speeds surpassing 4000 feet per second. These bullets deliver a deadly amount of force from the sheer velocity alone. Now take into consideration that these pieces of debris in space are traveling at 25,700 feet per second. The force delivered on impact wouldn't be anything short of devastating regardless of the size of the debris. An astronaut performing operations in space would have very little chance of survival if struck by one of these pieces.
3. Future Endeavors - With the amount of deadly metal trash circling our planet, future projects may be far more difficult to accomplish as time goes on. Every time we send a new satellite or shuttle into space, more debris is left behind in low orbit. As the shuttle needs to approach speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour, it is already traveling at amazing speeds in order to achieve an orbital position. What if one of these four-inch diameter pieces of debris flies into the shuttle's window as it is achieving those speeds? It may be like the shuttle hitting a solid surface at more than 25,000 miles per hour.
4. Earth Bound - Unlike the trash that is buried in landfills here on Earth, space debris can cause a great deal of immediate damage should it be pulled in by the planet's gravitational pull. Various places around the globe have experienced close encounters of the trash kind. Sometimes, the debris that lands in the United States doesn't even belong to the country. In March of 2011, a tank from a Russian Zenit-3 rocket made an impact crater in the hills of Colorado.
Yes, even American trash can make an unexpected re-entry. In 1997, a 580-pound US Delta II rocket fuel tank nearly impacted an occupied farmhouse. If it's expected that the trash in orbit is to triple, the threat to life on the planet will triple as well. Without warning, one of these larger pieces of debris could re-enter the atmosphere and cause a great deal of damage on impact. Although the only report of space debris actually hitting someone only "brushed" her shoulder, an inch in the wrong direction could possibly have torn her arm out of its socket.
While it's imperative that we monitor our waste materials here on the planet's surface, we need to also pay attention to that which is over our heads. While much of the debris can burn up in the atmosphere, large pieces have no problem barreling towards the surface of Earth at incredible speeds. If we want to enjoy the technological nuances of today's society, effort needs to be put into cleaning up our planet both on and off of its surface.
This is a guest post by Liz Nelson from WhiteFence.com. She is a freelance writer and blogger from Houston.