Space junk is out of control, scientists say

It’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.

And 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.

Virgin Galactic sets sights on orbital spaceflight

The stakes in the commercial space race just got a little loftier. Today, Virgin Galactic officially announced plans to team up with two U.S companies in pursuit of developing a commercial manned orbital spacecraft.

Backed by fearless entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has chosen to support Sierra Nevada Space Systems (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDEV2); an initiative designed to stimulate the development of privately-operated space vehicles. This falls in line with the comments Branson made in our exclusive interview at Spaceport America, saying that NASA’s role should transition to apportioning out money to private space companies.

Since it’s conception in 2004, Virgin Galactic has primarily worked alongside Mojave-based company Scaled Composites to develop a reusable sub-orbital craft, dubbed “SpaceShipTwo”. This design will take passengers over 62 miles into space, but lacks the power required to completely escape the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in about 5 minutes of weightlessness. Orbital flights would give passengers a much longer weightless experience and views of the entire surface of the Earth.

SNC and OSC are following Scaled’s lead by researching designs that will utilize lifting-wing bodies and runway landings in an effort to minimize cost and maximize passenger safety.

While the first iteration of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, has yet to make a rocket-powered manned test flight, Branson commented on the importance of looking ahead. “We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past…Today’s anouncement is an important step along the way of acheiving our ultimate and long term goal.”

We are indeed living in exciting times for private space exploration. Now go ahead and leave the inevitable “when can I afford it?” remarks in the comments section below!