There's so much trash out there in space that it's getting in the way of astronaut operations. The solution? ZAP it! The US military currently tracks about 20,000 items of space junk in low-Earth orbit, most of which are discarded pieces of spacecraft or debris from collisions of satellites. The Earth could even end up with a permanent junk belt that could make space too dangerous to fly in. In Wired.com, Lisa Grossman quotes NASA engineer Creon Levit as saying, "There's not a lot of argument that this is going to screw us if we don't do something. Right now it's at the tipping point, and it just keeps getting worse."
Two communications satellites collided in 2009, and fragments from that collision nearly hit the International Space Station a few months later. We haven't figured out how to destroy this stuff yet, but we CAN nudge it into different orbits with laser beams, so that collisions (which lead to MORE trash) don't occur. And when big pieces of debris break up into smaller ones, the pieces become harder to remove and as small, dense (and dangerous) as bullets, so simply keeping new fragments from forming can make a big difference. Grossman quotes space security expert Brian Weeden as saying, "It might be useful to buy some time. But I don’t think it would replace the need to remove debris, or stop creating new junk."
Because objects with more surface area feel more drag, the atmosphere pulls down the lightest, flattest fragments of space junk first--they gradually drift down to Earth. In Wired.com, Grossman quotes space scientist William Marshall as saying, "The beauty of that is that natural atmospheric drag can take its natural course and start taking things down. It gives the environment an opportunity to clean itself up."
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