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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

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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NASA’S Twins Study Claims, Long-term Spaceflight Not Linked to Major Health Risks

"It's almost as if the body's on high alert," said Christopher Mason, Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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NASA
Spending nearly a year in orbit increased NASA astronaut Scott Kelly's immune system response, as if, at the cellular level, his body felt under attack as compared to his Earth-bound twin brother, the Washington Post reported on Friday. Pixabay

While it was previously thought that long duration spaceflight can affect the human body, even at the molecular level, new results from NASAs “Twins Study” has showed that there are no major warning signs and no reason to think humans cannot survive a two-and-a-half-year round-trip journey to Mars.

As part of the “Twins Study”, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year in space while Mark, his identical twin, stayed on Earth as a control subject to look at the effects of space travel on the human body.

Spending nearly a year in orbit increased NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s immune system response, as if, at the cellular level, his body felt under attack as compared to his Earth-bound twin brother, the Washington Post reported on Friday.

NASA
According to report, the biggest concern is radiation as such a mission would expose astronauts to levels of radiation greater than permitted under current guidelines. That would not necessarily prevent a mission, but it remains a concern. Pixabay

These comparisons, however, has not raised any red flags about long-term spaceflight on the International Space Station (ISS), NASA officials were quoted as saying at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

“It’s almost as if the body’s on high alert,” said Christopher Mason, Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The space sojourn also changed the activity of some of his genes.

“It’s mostly really good news,” Mason said, adding, “the body has extraordinary plasticity and adaptation to being in zero gravity, at least for a year”.

NASA
“It’s almost as if the body’s on high alert,” said Christopher Mason, Associate Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine. Pixabay

According to Craig Kundrot, Director of NASA’s space life and physical sciences division, so far the space agency’s research found nothing that would make a Mars mission impossible.

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According to report, the biggest concern is radiation as such a mission would expose astronauts to levels of radiation greater than permitted under current guidelines. That would not necessarily prevent a mission, but it remains a concern.

However, Kundrot cautioned that the twin study has only two people as samples. “We don’t regard any of this as conclusive, but on the whole it’s encouraging,” he said, adding, “there are no new major warning signs”. (IANS)