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.

New space race begins when Atlantis lands

The Space Shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth this week from its final flight. That pretty much puts NASA out of the business of launching humans into space anytime soon. On one hand that’s sad, the end of a grand program and many space workers will lose their jobs. On the other hand, its the right move at the right time that may result in more American space travelers than ever as America’s next space race blasts off.

“I’m convinced in the next few years we’re going to see multiple companies flying several times a week,” says George Nield, head of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration reports “And that will mean hundreds of launches every year, with thousands of people getting to experience space flight firsthand.”

Indeed, several companies are offering trips that will give people a few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space. Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic and XCOR are all taking deposits. Other companies are planning to make spacecraft that can take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Space Shuttle program did it’s job. Hauling huge payloads of equipment, parts and supplies into space to build the International Space Station and more. Now it is time to turn the page on the next chapter of space exploration and some believe a whole new space race will be the result.

“The new American space race has begun” says Richard Garriott who paid a reported $30 million to ride a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2008, “This new race promises to create safer, cheaper spaceships that will explore farther, sooner. More importantly, in addition to exploration and fundamental research, this new era will return economic value from space resources like energy and minerals and microgravity research in fields such as biology.”

Garriott agrees that privately funded space travel will be the new frontier for NASA but notes the big difference is in how NASA will go about it’s business.

“NASA has always owned the vehicles that its astronauts rode into space” says Garriott in an article on, “What is changing is merely this procurement method. Instead of buying a vehicle, NASA is buying rides, just like it does for satellites.

Flickr photo by Undertow851

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Abandoned rocket factory haunts the Everglades

This creepy abandoned rocket factory once possessed aspirations to help send mankind into space using solid fuel rockets. Now, the graffiti splattered walls and crumbling facade tell the tale of stunted ambition. This documentary, called Space Miami, explores the story behind this abandoned rocket factory in the Florida Everglades known as Aerojet-Dade. Built in the early 1960’s, the factory tested rockets in the deepest hole ever dug in Florida – a 150 foot deep cavern. The solid fuel rockets were too large to be transported overland, so a man-made canal to the Atlantic was carved to transport the rockets by barge. All of this effort proved needless when the Apollo space mission decided to go with liquid fuel instead of the solid fuel. The plant drifted into obsolescence overnight.

In 1969, the lights were turned off, never to be turned on again.

Space Miami – Aerojet-Dade Rocket Site Documentary from Coffee and Celluloid on Vimeo.

NASA chooses deep space travel vehicle, not everybody happy – Poll

The deep space travel vehicle that will be the future of America’s space program was announced by NASA this week. That’s good news for Lockheed-Martin who will develop it but some legendary astronauts disagree with the direction of the program.

“As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The new capsule, now called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), will be based on the Orion space craft that had been part of the Constellation return-to-the-moon program, with landing on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2035 as a new goal. Effectively canceled by President Obama in 2009 when his proposed 2011 budget did not include funds for the inherited program, developer Lockheed-Martin calls it a New Era of Space Exploration.

In a highly-critical answer to the NASA announcement in USA Today, legendary astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan look back to the beginning of the U.S. space program for answers.”Obama’s advisers, in searching for a new and different NASA strategy with which the president could be favorably identified, ignored NASA’s operational mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy’s vision and the will of the American people” the astronauts said in the USA Today post.

The former commanders of moon missions note diligent work by Congress to steer NASA’s program back towards Kennedy’s goals in spite of a reduced budget but question the reality of efforts to partner with industry for future development.

“Entrepreneurs in the space transportation business assert that they can offer such service at a very attractive price – conveniently not factoring in the NASA-funded development costs. These expenditures, including funds to insure safety and reliability, can be expected to be substantially larger and more time consuming than the entrepreneurs predict.”

Finally, noting the apparent demise of NASA’s human space flight program and what appears to be a lack of direction or a solid plan to maintain leadership in space exploration, the astronauts draw a sobering conclusion:

“Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.”

Are you disappointed? Vote in our poll and let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Flickr photo by Futurilla


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Space tourism celebrates tenth anniversary

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]