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Decades’ worth of man-made junk is cluttering up Earth’s orbit, posing a threat to Spaceflight and Satellites

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FILE - A piece of metal, presumably from doomed US rocket SpaceX Falcon, recovered from the sea off the Isles of Scilly in Britain, is seen in this handout provided to Reuters on Nov. 27, 2015. VOA
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Decades’ worth of man-made junk is cluttering up Earth’s orbit, posing a threat to spaceflight and the satellites we rely on for weather reports, air travel and global communications.

More than 750,000 fragments larger than a centimeter are already thought to orbit Earth, and each one could badly damage or even destroy a satellite.

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Last year, a tiny piece of debris punched a gaping hole in the solar panel of Copernicus Sentinel-1A, an observation satellite operated by the European Space Agency, or ESA. A solar array brought back from the Hubble Telescope in 1993 showed hundreds of tiny holes caused by dust-sized debris.

Experts meeting in Germany this week said the problem could get worse as private companies such as SpaceX, Google and Arlington, Virginia-based OneWeb send a flurry of new satellites into space over the coming years. They said steps should be taken to reduce space debris.

Getting all national space agencies and private companies to comply with international guidelines designed to prevent further junk in orbit would be a first step. At the moment those rules — which can be costly to implement — aren’t legally binding.

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ESA’s director-general, Jan Woerner, told The Associated Press on Friday that so-called mega-constellations planned by private companies should have a maximum orbital lifetime of 25 years. After that, the satellite constellations would need to move out of the way, either by going into a so-called `graveyard orbit’ or returning to Earth.

That’s because dead satellites pose a double danger: they can collide with other spacecraft or be hit by debris themselves, potentially breaking up into tiny pieces that become a hazard in their own right.

The nightmare scenario would be an ever-growing cascade of collisions resulting in what’s called a Kessler syndrome — named after the NASA scientist who first warned about it four decades ago — that could render near-Earth orbits unusable to future generations.

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“Without satellites, you don’t have weather reports, live broadcasts from the other side of the planet, stock market, air travel, online shopping, sat-nav in your car,” Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations, said. “You might as well move into a museum if all the satellites are switched off.”

Even if future launches adhere to the guidelines, though, there’s the question of what to do with all of the debris already in orbit.

“We have to clean the vacuum, which means we need a vacuum cleaner,” Woerner said.

Just how such a device would work is still unclear. Proposals include garbage-cleaning spacecraft armed with harpoons, nets, robotic arms and even lasers to fry really small bits of debris.

Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA’s “clean space” initiative, said a mission is already in the works to bring down a very large piece of debris.

“It’s a very complex operation because nobody wants to fail,” she said. “Nobody wants to hit the debris and create another cloud of debris.” (VOA)

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New gen robots to refuel and repair friendly satellites

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New gen robots to refuel and repair friendly satellites
New gen robots to refuel and repair friendly satellites. pixabay

New York, Jan 1, 2018: US government body Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and NASA have teamed up to build robotic technology that can refuel and repair friendly satellites.

“Service stations in orbit” — name given to these robotic satellites — would not only refuel satellites but also drastically improve their longevity and lifespan.

According to a report in Futurism, the robots could fix minor maintenance issues, keeping up with current orbiters as they age and sustain damage.

The agencies also hope to keep the orbit clear of debris called space pollution which is caused by broken satellites abandoned in the space.

In 2015, there were about 25,000 human-made objects larger than a human fist and roughly half a million larger than a dime orbiting Earth.

Additionally, these satellites could also face off against mechanical foes in orbit meaning it could sabotage enemy satellites in the event of war, apparently by dismantling opponents or forcing them to crash.

They could also play defence, monitoring for tampering, the report highlighted. (IANS)