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Decluttering Space

Eirik Solheim on Flickr

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and seen a star that was moving? It might have been a satellite!

Satellites are man-made objects that orbit the earth and are used for a bunch of purposes. Some are responsible for taking pictures of the earth, while others are used for sending and receiving information from all around the globe.

Floating Junk Yard

Of the over 8000 satellites orbiting the earth, only about half of them are still active. The other 4000, along with the many pieces of old rocket engines, broken satellites, and even lego figures are known as “space debris” and can be a real problem.

The reason space debris is such a concern is that while we can track where the old satellites are, the smaller pieces of space debris can’t be tracked and it would only take a softball-sized
object hitting a satellite or a spacecraft, to cause serious problems. Some scientists even fear that we will one day have so many objects orbiting the earth we will end up blocking any future missions into space.

Cosmic Cleanup

To prevent this from happening, scientists and engineers have begun developing a process called “deorbiting” to safely remove space debris from the earth’s orbit. De-orbiting involves using special spacecraft or devices to slow down or push/pull the space debris and make it fall back to earth, where it will burn up in the atmosphere as a shooting star does.

One way scientists are working on this problem sounds a lot like they are going on a big fishing trip. These scientists are building spacecraft equipped with net and harpoon launchers to capture satellites for deorbiting. Other scientists and engineers are working on ways of getting rid of this space debris with specialized spacecraft equipped with magnets that can drag the inactive satellites back towards the earth, while others are exploring using lasers to do the same.

But de-orbiting space debris is not easy. It requires a lot of planning and can be very expensive. It also has to be done carefully to make sure that the space debris doesn’t accidentally hit any other satellites or objects in space on its way down. De-orbiting space debris is important because it helps to keep space clean and safe for future missions and for the day when we are eventually able to explore space ourselves.

So the next time you see a shooting star, it may just be an old satellite burning up in our atmosphere.

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