Clutter Control

Not all space debris is created equal. After all, there's cool space debris, like the kind NASA's Stardust probe collected from a comet and brought back to Earth for scientists to study in investigating the birth of the solar system.

Then there's this really
neat space debris found in the form of a disk, like our asteroid belt, which encircles a sun-like star and could be in the process of forming planets.

But then no one likes this kind of
debris event (as in, "[w]e had a debris event on the PAL ramp along the LOX field line - below the point where the LH2 ramp begins. Our expectation is that we would not have an unexpected debris event.") But foam debris from the shuttle external fuel tank is, presumably, fixable.

On the other hand, according to a widely picked up AP story last week, in a new report by NASA scientists J.-C. Liou and N. L. Johnson published in Science (sub. req'd) -- although as far as I can tell this is not exactly breaking news -- given the
tons of debris orbiting Earth, even without further launches new debris would arise from collisions of existing pieces of clutter. And the new junk will "exceed the amount of material removed as orbits decay and items fall back to Earth."

And, reiterating warnings we've always heard about space debris, the researchers say only cleaning up the mess "can prevent future problems for research in and commercialization of space."

What to do? Well. In a phone interview one of the researchers told AP, and we've heard this warning, too, there is "no viable solution, technically and economically, to remove objects from space."

Of course, we can always check out HobbySpace for good ideas.

Aside from removal of debris (-- isn't Tony Soprano in the "waste management" business?), steps to mitigate accumulation of space clutter are key. According to NASA's
Orbital Debris Program Office, "Mitigation measures can take the form of curtailing or preventing the creation of new debris, designing satellites to withstand impacts by small debris, and implementing operational procedures ranging from utilizing orbital regimes with less debris, adopting specific spacecraft attitudes, and even maneuvering to avoid collisions with debris."

Some folks have called for an international treaty governing space debris. Another view, as I've previously posted, is set forth by
Steve Mirmina who writes in favor of a voluntary code of conduct concerning space debris because "the most effective way to reduce orbital debris is through compliance with self-imposed guidelines and apolitical, technically based safety standards," especially since, as Steve posits, the UN's Legal Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, lacking a consensus here, "is unlikely to agree on legally enforceable commitments with respect to orbital debris in the foreseeable future."

For now, the feds have come up with
U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practice. And here are NASA's decade old Guidelines and Assessment Procedures for Limiting Orbital Debris (NASA Safety Standard 1740.14); while other space junk-makers including Russia, Japan, France, and Europe have also weighed in with their own guidelines for mitigating orbital junk.

And the
Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), made up of the space agencies of Italy, U.K., France, China, Germany, Europe, India, Japan, US, Ukraine and Russia currently serves as a "forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space."

A space-faring civilization can get rather sloppy. Meanwhile, why couldn't Stardust do a little housekeeping while it was out there? (And speaking of housekeeping, I wonder where can I get my hands on some of that nifty
aerogel to help clean up a bit around my apartment?)

* * *

UPDATE: On Talk of the Nation's Science Friday last week (Jan. 20), Nicholas Johnson, Program Manager and Chief of NASA Orbital Debris Program gave an interesting interview on space debris. Listen in (MP3).

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