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Space and Debris

Helmut Sorge | Posted : October 03, 2018


January 28, 1986. It was just another day in the whirlpool of news and speculations of a new Foreign Correspondent to be assigned to the White House. Shivering on his way to the most important political center of the Western World, resisting arctic cold and snow on the way to work, hardly ever seeing the President himself. Instead, he found himself on this fateful day in a rendez-vous with Tom Foley, majority leader in the House of Representatives, a classic and classy democrat, honest and liberal, stamped by dignity and selected language and never close to the gutter as some politicians in the US capital these days.

I was early and the politician was late, a vote had been called in his part of Congress. I watched TV in his office — the launch of the space shuttle Challenger from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, also known as Cape Canaveral. The countdown was on. The voice for takeoff, calm as ever, almost caressing the sentences —then, without change of tempo or chord he informed the world with the classic message of relieve and pride — We have lift off

The energy seemed to explode, pushing the rocket towards the great beyond, towards unnamed stars in the depths of the galaxy. The roar of adventure engulfed the launching pad, joining the applause and joyous screams of spectators, echoing from the globe decorating the desk of the congressional representative’s office, forcing me to lower the volume button on the TV set. 

Then, suddenly, silence. The NASA commentator, ever so calm and collected, declared that mission control had lost all contact with the Challenger. And, suddenly, those tears of joy changed into those of pain and confusion. The same source driven by different emotions — horror instead of jubilation. Mission STS-51-L, the space shuttle, had broken apart at an altitude of 48,000 feet, the seven crew members were feared to have died, among them school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen by the NASA among 11,000 teachers — who had all been requested to fly on the shuttle. She was trained to conduct experiments in outer space and was assigned to teach millions of children, hooked up with the “International Space Station,” two 15-minute sessions, explaining - from close to 400 kilometers above earth - the reasons and challenges for the human race attempting to conquer space, the seemingly unending galaxy. It had been a dream come true for the high school teacher from the small town of Concord, New Hampshire.


Her husband and two kids, six and nine, and thousands of invited school children, did not immediately know that a tragedy would forever shadow their lives, the confrontation with the ever present danger of space travel, brave men and women, astronauts, hurled through the unknown solar system at speeds of 28,000 km per hour. Mrs. Aucliff had no fear, or she just did not admit that her heartbeat would accelerate whenever she was attending training sessions. If you are offered a seat on a rocket ship,” she used to explain, “don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” A hero for space pioneers, who named an asteroid after her, a crater on the moon and another one on Venus. Tom Foley had no time anymore to chat with me about nuclear waste destroying part of his home state, Washington. The Challenger accident was a national catastrophe. Emotions about the teacher and her brave space travelers overwhelmed even those citizens whom viewed space exploration is a waste of tax payers money, and not the challenge to investigate a world beyond-new horizons, undiscovered planets, apt for human life, suitable to be cultivated into an extension of earth.

Two hours after NASA had lost contact with its crew, I was on my way to the Space Center in Florida. News does not know holidays, fires, earthquakes, the sinking of a ferry, war is news and the tragedy of brave space adventurers is news, front-page stuff. Emotional and tearful. Questions. Accusations. The press in its nervous state, captured between insanity and reflection. The accident was not only a tragedy for the families of the deceased astronauts, but for NASA itself, which tried, with the assignment of a teacher, to increase public interest in the space shuttle program, and at the same time demonstrate the reliability of space flight at a phase when the space agency was under continuous pressure to find financial support. Instead, accusations, criticism of arrogance and mismanagement, and the suspension of space travel for 32 months occurred.


Not a phase of glory, but national trauma and more questions, about safety, money, and human sacrifice. The Challenger went down because of a banality, a leaking pressure seal on one of the rocket boosters, a simple design flaw with tragic consequences. 17 years later, another tragedy with a space shuttle, the Columbia, which, after 16 days in space and on its decent to landing, exploded at 18 times the speed of sound and 61,170 meters above ground, scattering debris over a 5,180 square kilometer zone in east Texas alone! NASA eventually recovered 84,000 pieces in an area for three to 10 miles around a small town, representing nearly 40 percent of Columbia. Among them were the crew remains, which were identified with DNA. Again, the probable fault for the accident seems ordinary and dull: about 82 seconds after the shuttle left the ground, a piece of foam seemed to have struck Columbia’s left wing, ripped a hole, which allowed atmospheric gasses to bleed into the shuttle as it went through its fiery re-entry phase. 27 missions successfully completed, the first space shuttle to fly into space (1981), and now, tragedy replaces triumph.

Prior to any of the shuttle flights NASA would ask North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to monitor the orbital path of the shuttles for signs of space garbage. The first collision avoidance maneuver occurred during mission 3STS-48 in September of 1991, reports writer Robert Matson in Satellite Encounters, a seven seconds thruster burn to avoid junk from “Kosmos 955.” Similar maneuvers were activated on several other flights. In 2005, stated, “debris is shuttles biggest threat.” A NASA study confirmed that space garbage accounted for half of the overall risk for the shuttle. An impacting micrometeoroid or a tiny piece of rock can penetrate or damage a protective wall—mind you, the ISS and everything else orbiting is travelling with speeds of 28,000 km/h. A maneuver is performed if there is a greater than 1:10,000 chance of a debris strike. Until January 2014, 16 maneuvers were ordered in the fifteen years since ISS is in orbit.


The tiniest of impact can cause damage, although the main body of the space station carries shielding to protect it from impacts. Returned spacecraft were microscopically examined for small impacts. Sections of Skylab and the Apollo Command/service module, which were recovered after missions, were pitted and grazed by debris. After the tragedy of Columbia, shuttles were not flown for years, and the safety features improved. The shuttle fleet was maintained long enough to complete construction of the International Space Station, with most missions solely focused on finishing the building work. The ISS was also viewed as a safe haven for astronauts to shelter in case of another foam malfunction during launch. The shuttle program was retired in July 2011 after 135 missions. NASA now is working on a deep-space program called Orion that could bring astronauts to the moon, mars or other destinations. Space X and Boeing, and several other private industrial groups, are planning to test commercial crew flights into space. The era of luxurious space travel, the imagination of science fiction writers and Wall Street profiteers, are transformed into reality.

In other words: Space travel is growing into a new world, despite tragic losses and astronomical investments. Most kids of today, a younger generation seem satisfied with anarchic science fiction films and tempestuousness in their own, often strange and confusing, outings in cyber space. Men hopped across the moon, robots on wheels, rovers, some as big as a VW bus, are cruising on Mars, all historic events, hardly noticed by digital engulfed masses. Did they ever hear of Apollo 11? Apollo who? Two men risking, in July 1969, their lives, willing to reach the moon in their space module Eagle. I was in Houston, in the Space Center, observing on a giant screen the first step on the moon by astronaut Neil Armstrong, who declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Once the three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 (after eight days in space), history was written and the scientists and reporters enlightened their joy in Budweisers and Bloody Marys, celebrating in so called “splash down parties” all over Houston — we witnessed the realization of a dream, the beginning of the exploration of the universe.

The question then, after the two space heroes stepped onto the dusty moon July 21, are the questions asked today: Do we want to discover life beyond the stars, possibly billions of stars, will astronauts one day meet other creatures in space, or discover paradise, the promised paradise? Our fantasies, so it seems, are the only limit in our exploration of the celestial body, the physical limits for humans, who would, on a voyage to Mars, have to travel through nuclear radiation, endure one year of an existence in limited quarters, forced to replace lost muscle mass. How do human bodies react to millions of miles asked to suffer phenomenal speeds, possibly alone or a crew of two? Supplies for two years of travel. Unknown physical and psychological challenges. A voyage in silence, years of silence, interrupted by computer speak. I once asked a seasoned astronaut whether he would be willing to risk a journey to mars. He did not hesitate one second with his answer: “Yes, it would be my dreams come true.” And, how would he pass his time? On the way up, he was planning to learn Russian, and on the way back Chinese.


Questions on space, the future beyond the celestial body, are hardly asked by the masses, engaged in basic survival. Billions of down trodden, forgotten human’s, are struggling for food, for a future and dignity, dream of security and a life in human conditions. Instead, they are out and down as George Orwell titled one of his bestsellers. Space, understandably, is not part of their thoughts, since the earth could not give them a decent answer or existence. Or, is it for THIS reason that we have to move into space, without hesitation? Searching for a new wild west, other colonies, passing new frontiers, although our colonial experience in Africa, South America, or Asia should scare us away from new temptations to exploit the weak-if frail they are, our yet to meet neighbors, a trillion miles away, perhaps a couple hundred light years of voyage. Possibly they are intellectuals with an IQ of 1,000 or robots without soul. Yes, who pays for this inspiring challenge? Do we have the funds to search for alternatives for life on earth, the earth which is slowly committing suicide? Climate change, water shortage, overpopulation, pollution is shadowing the path to the future, which, yes, may be located in the mythical, undiscovered universe. If only we would not do to space, what we have done to our oceans, our wildlife, the glaciers and our tropical forests, to our food, our elephants and rhinos, the whales. Our pristine rivers and beaches. Damaged. Destroyed. No hesitation. No jail time for destruction, only punishment for political resistance and the demand for social and political change. We will survive our follies, future generations will suffer.

Space is real. A myth, but also reality. The destructive forces, pushing earth towards the brink, are also threatening space. Our universe. These romantic stars all burned off and obsolete, but romantic anyhow. The star. Competing in its distant glitter with diamonds. Just look from the pure Moroccan Sahara desert around Merzouga, the incredible dunes or Erg Chebbi, upon the silver dots above, light years away—magic. Stretch out on desert sand in the moonlight and allow your dreams escape from the Tissardmin oasis into the cosmos. The eternal light of life. Will we ever reach the stars, understand the mystique of the sun, in awe of the myth? Possibly, it will be too late soon. We may not be able to travel in space anymore. The paths to Venus, Mars and the moon, beyond time or human dimension, may be blocked by flying objects, space junk. Yes, the oceans are filthy, but the universe is not far behind. The kids, concentrating on cyber space, just don’t know and care how human madness is abusing the future. Above their villages next to the Himalayas or the tropical forests of the Amazon, slums in Calcutta or villas in California’s BelAir, nearly 2,000 satellites are circulating, satellites spying for the Pentagon, satellites following climate change, connecting the world of TV, feeding WhatsApp. Observing military targets, listening  into secret  conversations. Satellites control, observe our lives. Tools for dictators or tax evaders, used to spy, used to destroy.


Most of these flying communication objects are controlled, guided by computer systems or scientists. But there is, in addition, real junk in space, and real danger. An estimated 40,000 space objects —the vast majority of which are defunct satellites, rockets upper stages, which end up in orbit, and fragments from collisions — are currently tracked by the US-based Space Surveillance Network. The first major satellite collision occurred February 2009. Did the world notice? Or even care? The deactivated 950 kg “Kosmos 2251,” and the operational “560 Iridum 33,” collided 500-miles over Northern Siberia at a relative speed, on impact, of 42,120 km/h. It is estimated that some 7,600 metric tons (8,378 tons) are hurtling around the earth at speeds 18 times the speed of sound. Envisat comes to mind, a bus sized earth observation satellite that died in 2012 and still orbits. It is one of the largest and most dangerous of space junk in low earth orbit.

On January 22, 2013, BLITS, a Russian satellite, was struck by debris suspected to be from a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test, changing its orbit and spin rate,” reported This July the European Space Agency (ESA) nudged one of its satellites Cryo Sat 2, which is used to measure glaciers and sea levels, from its normal orbit to avoid a potential collusion with an unknown object, which passed in 122 meters distance. It was the 14th time in the last eight years of the satellites orbit, that a so called Collision Avoidance maneuver had been activated. At this pace, the smallest of impacts pose danger,  particularly for manned space vehicles, which are almost constantly struck by micrometeoroids about the size of dust grains, confirmed the Astrophysical Journal. A large enough collision between a space station and a defunct satellite could make low earth orbit impassable — with dramatic consequences. “Space debris,” noted “is a growing problem and the worlds space agencies agree that steps must be taken to tackle the issue.” Other reasons to worry are uncontrollable: asteroids, comets and fragments of larger bodies, and meteoroids. Each day, on average, one of the man-made objects lost in space is dropping onto earth. On the other hand, a Vanguard 1 satellite launched 1958 into medium earth orbit, is the longest, active, satellite in space. The ESA- telecom satellite, Olympus 1 was struck by a meteoroid on August 1993 and eventually moved to a so-called graveyard orbit. In July 1996, the French microsatellite Cerise was hit by fragments of an Ariane-1 H-10 upper stage booster, which exploded ten years earlier. Three years ago, a United States Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite exploded in orbit, creating at least 149 pieces of space junk, objects, predicted Space news, which are expected to remain in orbit for decades.


Collisions with debris have become a serious hazard to spacecraft. Accidental encounters of satellites, a collision, has, almost, developed into normality. And each collision is creating more space garbage. 98 percent of the 1,900 tons of debris measured (in 2002) in the low earth orbit accounted for 1,500 objects, all weighing at least 100 kilos. Large objects, such as solar power satellites, confirmed scientists (decades ago) at the International Astronautically Congress are especially vulnerable to collisions. Larger, human made, debris in space, the size of a softball or bigger, are tracked, often by radar, from the ground. If, for example, the International Space Station is threatened by junk, the orbiting laboratory is maneuvered around the menacing garbage. The danger is practically permanent, since, as of July 2013, more than 170 million pieces of debris (smaller than one centimeter), about 670,000 debris (one-to-ten centimeters) and an estimated 29,000, menacing, larger, space junk pieces were detected. The human made space junk consists of discarded or broken parts of space craft launch vehicles, or even remnants of a satellite’s nuclear reactor and other, more entertaining items, as the glove lost by US astronaut, Ed White on the first American space walk, a camera lost by a cosmonaut floating away, or a simple pair of pliers disappearing into space during a space walk to reinforce a torn solar panel.

A report by the US National Research Council warned NASA (in 2011) that the amount of orbiting space debris is at a critical level. According to some computer models, the amount of space debris has “reached a tipping point,” with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures.” Since clear laws and regulations, abided by all nations, do not exist for space exploration, countries disregard implications, as the endangerment of spacecrafts or satellites. China’s government was condemned for a disregard of unofficial restrictions of military experiments in space. With an anti-satellite missile test Beijing created the largest single space debris in history, creating over 2,300 junk pieces golf ball size or larger, over 35,000 one centimeter objects, and over one million pieces one millimeter or bigger. The targeted satellite orbited between 850 and 882 kilometers, the portion of near earth space most densely populated with satellites,” wrote NASA moved its Terra satellite to avoid Chinese space garbage. It certainly would reduce truth to a caricature, if we would not report that the US was not shy either to pollute space: in February 2008, the US fired an SM-3 missile from a navy vessel, the USS Lake Erie, to destroy a defective US spy satellite, thought to be carrying 450 kilo of toxic hydrazine propellant. The debris resulting after the missile strike decayed apparently by early 2009.


There is no international treaty dealing with space debris and the proliferation of our universe with garbage, including remnants of small nuclear objects, only voluntary guidelines published by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful use of Outer Space. International guidelines supposedly exist   for satellite operators to ensure their spacecrafts are removed within a reasonable amount of time after the mission ends. Some try to play the rules and move their obsolete satellite into a so called graveyard orbit, hoping for their object to decay and eventually fall out of space, burning up once entering the earth’s atmosphere. The clean- up of near earth space junk has been discussed for years, but such missions are as costly as the launch of satellites or shuttles on massive rockets, shedding some of their structures once the load has been released. Apparently, commercial incentives do hardly exist, since costs are not assigned to polluters. Removal costs and legal questions about ownership and the authority to remove defunct satellites have blocked national or international action. The world’s space agencies estimate that five large, defunct satellites need to be removed from low earth orbit every year to prevent the so-called Kessler –syndrome, the unstoppable cascade of orbital collisions predicted by NASA-scientist Donald Kessler some decades ago.

The NASA Orbital Debris Observatory tracks space debris with a three-meter liquid mirror transit telescope, others are using optical detectors or radar.  In 2012, the European Space Agency (ESA) had authorized a mission to remove large space debris from orbit. “Deorbit,” is scheduled for launch by 2021, with an objective to remove junk heavier than 400 kilograms from the low earth orbit. The research and development arm within the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, submitted a proposal to the country’s “Academy of Science” for transforming a three-meter optical telescope into a laser cannon. The plan: the cannon will train laser beams on pieces of orbiting detritus in low earth orbit, heating up the bits of floating junk until they are entirely demolished. In June of this year a “remove debris spacecraft,” weighing 100 kilograms and the size of a refrigerator, has been released for trials from the International Space Station.

The clean up craft, European funded with 18.2 million dollars, carries three types of technologies for space debris capture- a harpoon, a net and a drag sail. The final experiment, the drag sail, developed by the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, supposedly will slow down the satellite and will speed up the objects de-orbiting process in less than 10 weeks. Without the sail the clean up could take 100 weeks. The idea for a “net”- developed by Airbus at one of their sites, in Bremen, Germany- will be tried within the coming weeks. The clean up job is shadowed by a certain urgency-the private space groups are advancing their projects, since there seems a market for the wealthy, or very wealthy, who are bored with their yachts, cruising off St Tropez or Fijji, St Barth, or Miami Beach. The polo competitions are repetitive, owning a football club in England a challenge perhaps for nouveau riche Russians, Chinese and Americans.

A weekend trip around the moon — isn’t that tempting? Space Pioneers like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin or Space X are preparing voyages to orbital or suborbital heights, a million or so for an hour excitement the friends at the golf club cannot top. Dennis Tito, who made a couple hundred million plus in high tech controlled investment management, invited me for tea at his extravagant mansion near Los Angeles, high up on a hill; his house almost touches the clouds, giving the owner the feeling at night “that even without dreams I am touching the stars.” He was the first space tourist ever, in April/May 2001, when he enjoyed the view of the world and the stars above on the International Space Station, remaining seven days, 22 hours and four minutes in space. Tito, who graduated with a Ph.D. in Engineering science and worked for some time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory  in California‘s Pasadena, had since childhood, “only the one dream-to touch the moon, embrace the stars.”


NASA did not help the New York born space fanatic (1940), the Russian Space agency Roscosmos reserved a seat on ISS-EP-1. After studying Russian and flight training in Russia, the American lifted off on a Soyuz space vehicle. The fee: 20 million dollars. For Mr. Tito, the “adventure was worth each cent.” Among his friends of the Los Angeles opera —which he supports financially—the famous tenor Placido Domingo, chose classical music for the orbital voyage, which Tito enjoyed while he floated through space. From 2001 to 2008, the Russians transported seven tourists on eight trips to ISS(one traveler was a repeat customer), but when NASA retired the shuttle fleet, Moscow had to abandon its tourist business since Soyuz was now the only spaceship able to reach the space station-seats were needed for professional astronauts.

Tito could not get rid of his space virus, and he was ready to finance, with friends and business partners, a space flight to Mars. However, even for him, without NASA’s cooperation, the calculated costs were beyond budget. Boeing, the American industrial giant, is working on the CST 100 Starliner capsule, developed as a private investment to transport tourists and NASA astronauts into space. The American space agency, involved in this project, is willing to reserve on each flight one or two seats for paying space tourists. Space X, a competitor, is preparing its Big Falcon Rocket for voyages to the moon, and possibly to Mars in 2023. Before any test flight a Japanese billionaire is ready to purchase a Space X spaceship or pay the fee to carry him and six to eight artists around the moon. The project is not just an adventure, but the entrepreneur wants to stimulate the artist to come up with new ideas, art forms stimulated by space and the moon. The development and testing of the spaceship may take years, possibly too much time, if the junk is not cleared from space, threatening tourists dreaming of a moonlight serenade as celebrated by Frank Sinatra: “…the stars are aglow and tonight how their light sets me dreaming.”

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