Space junk is out of control, scientists say

space junkIt’s a dilemma faced by every adventure traveler: to find the perfect remote spot untouched by modernity, free from cell phones, television, and trash. Of course there is no such place, not even in space. In fact, the orbital detritus of modern life can be downright dangerous, scientists warn.

A new report from the National Research Council says there are so many bits of trash in orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to fragments like nuts and bolts, that they’re bumping into each other, breaking apart, and making more trash. Around 22,000 large pieces of space junk are tracked from the ground, occasionally prompting the International Space Station to maneuver out of the way, and there are hundreds of thousands of more pieces too small to be detected. It amounts to a cloud of trash surrounding the earth, as this NASA image shows.

This puts current astronauts and future space tourists in peril. With the high velocities objects achieve in orbit, it’s like having hundreds of thousands of bullets flying around the Earth.

space junkAnd it’s getting worse. The BBC reports two satellites crashed in 2009 and broke apart. Also, the Chinese tested a satellite killer in 2007 that successfully smashed up its target into more than 150,000 pieces larger than a centimeter. The U.S. and Soviet Union tested similar weapons back in the 1960s and 1970s, creating their own clouds of debris.

Several manned spacecraft have been hit by space debris. Two Shuttle missions have had radiator panels in the cargo bay punctured by debris. The International Space Station and Mir have both suffered numerous impacts. Sometimes the damage is caused by natural micrometeorites.

One certain impact by space debris was in 1983 when a fleck of paint smacked into the space shuttle Challenger’s front window and left a crater, as you can see in this NASA image.

If a fleck of paint can do this to the Space Shuttle, imagine what an old rocket booster could do.

Space tourism celebrates tenth anniversary

space tourism, Dennis Tito
Space tourism
is ten years old this week. On 28 April 2001 millionaire Dennis Tito became the first person to go into space as a tourist and not an astronaut or scientist.

In an interview with BBC today he talked about how thrilled he was and called his eight days being in orbit “paradise.”

While space tourism is the ultimate in high-cost adventure travel–only seven people have done it so far and Tito is said to have paid $20 million for the privilege–private companies are hoping to make it more widely available. They also want to make it more comfortable. Tito was crammed “elbow to elbow” in a Russian capsule after NASA refused to put him on one of the Space Shuttles. Not that he cared at the time. Check out this video of Dennis Tito’s arrival at the International Space Station. The guy’s euphoric!

A number of private companies are looking into commercial space travel. The most serious contender is Virgin Galactic, which has already built a spaceport and put their spaceship Enterprise through a test flight. The company hopes to push an orbital trip down to $200,000, just one percent of what Tito paid. Who knows? Maybe good old free-market competition will push the price even lower than that.

Even more ambitious is Excalibur Almaz, a company based in the Isle of Man that has bought some Russian space capsules that they’re refurbishing. They boast that they’ll offer trips around the Moon by 2015.

Best of luck folks, but I won’t be looking for a Lonely Planet Outer Space in the bookstores anytime soon.

[Photo courtesy NASA]

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Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Enterprise flies first solo run


The world is one step closer to the era of space tourism after an historic flight in the Mojave desert yesterday.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Enterprise took its first solo flight, detaching from the mothership Eve and landing on its own power.

Enterprise can carry six passengers and two crew. The mothership Eve carries Enterprise up into the sky before the Enterprise detaches and ignites its rocket, shooting it above the atmosphere and into space, but not high enough to achieve orbit. The rocket was not fired on this test flight and no passengers were on board. The crew consisted of pilots Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury, who flew for 25 minutes before landing.

More than three hundred people have already signed up to take a suborbital ride on the Enterprise once it becomes operational. Rides cost $200,000 each and are scheduled to start in about eighteen months.

The British owner of Virgin, Sir Richard Branson, watched the test. The success of the operation came as good news after Virgin Galactic’s financial difficulties.

Would you fly into space if you had the money? Tell us what you think in the comments section!

Virgin Galactic launcher delayed


We’ve covered space tourism company Virgin Galactic a lot here on Gadling. What hasn’t gotten so much discussion is LauncherOne, a rocket that would take off from the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, the same ship that carries SpaceshipTwo. While SpaceShipTwo is a space plane that would detach from the mother ship and fly into the high atmosphere, LauncherOne is a more conventional rocket that would carry a satellite weighing up to 440 lbs into low orbit.

Originally it was supposed to start sending satellites into space a year after the space tourism business started, but now LauncherOne is in trouble. The manager of the project has left and there’s no timetable for getting the system operational. One UK satellite company has backed out of discussions about using LauncherOne.

Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson said the tourism business is still on track and will start sending tourists into the highest reaches of the atmosphere within 18 months at the price of $200,000 a pop. More than three hundred people have already signed up.

What does LauncherOne’s troubles mean for space tourism? That’s not so clear. While the LauncherOne isn’t part of Virgin Galactic’s tourism service, it makes the whole program more financially viable. Without the fees charged to satellite owners to use LauncherOne, Virgin Galactic may have to raise its prices or shove in more passengers. Will coach class come to space? Stay tuned.

[Photo courtesy Mark Greenberg and Virgin Galactic]

Boeing enters the space tourism market

Aerospace giant Boeing announced on Wednesday that it is entering the space tourism market by selling extra seats on future flights to the International Space Station. The company has developed a “space taxi” that will shuttle astronauts to the ISS once NASA officially retires the Space Shuttle sometime next year, and is partnering with Space Adventures, a company that has a history in organizing space flights for wealthy private citizens.

Boeing is currently bidding for the NASA contract to ferry astronauts into orbit, and has designed a new spacecraft known as the CST-100 or Crew Space Transportation-100. That small ship is expected to have seven seats, with several remaining empty on most flights. Those seats would be sold off to help fund the program, with tickets being sold at a price tag that is expected to appeal to very wealthy, and adventurous, travelers. No specific price points have been announced yet, but officials say that the flights will be competitive with trips aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which Space Adventures also brokers deals for. The last such flight cost Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte a cool $35 million and included a 10-day stay aboard the ISS.

For now, Boeing’s entry into the space tourism field is just a plan that may not come to fruition until 2015. But investors are taking notice because this is the first time that such a large company, with a background in aerospace, has actually placed any kind of focus on opening the market for civilian travelers to go into orbit. Their entry into the field lends legitimacy to space tourism, which many had seen as a pipe dream until now.

[Photo credit: Boeing]