Cosmic Debris Faces New Enemy

By Nicole Hemsoth

July 12, 2011

On June 28, researchers on the International Space Station received an urgent warning that space junk was on its way—and that they needed to take cover and prepare. The astronauts rushed to take refuge in Russian Soyuz lifeboats while a hunk of cosmic debis hurtled just 260 meters past them.

As space exploration efforts continue and we continue to send satellites and other probes out of Earth’s atmosphere, the threat of space junk looms. A recent endeavor using high performance computing and advanced visualization is hoping to create a next-gen system to track this galactic garbage via a “Space Fence” that will be operational by 2015.

According to NASA and the U.S. Strategic Command Center, the 20,000 pieces of drifting space junk that have been categorized and tracked represent a small fraction of what is out there. They estimate that there are somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 objects larger than half an inch currently in orbit around the Earth. Since these travel in orbit at around 17,500 mph, satellites, ships, probes and other equipment could easily be obliterated.

As a report from MSNBC noted:

“The next-generation Space Fence will also rely on high-performance computing to identify and keep track of orbital paths for what’s likely to be hundreds of thousands of bits of orbiting junk. That should provide better “predict-ahead ability,” Burgess said. Right now, NASA’s rules call for the space station’s crew to take evasive action — or prepare to abandon ship — if a piece of debris is projected to fly within an imaginary ”pizza box” that’s about 15 miles (25 kilometers) on each side and a half-mile (0.75 kilometers) above and below the station. The Space Fence would reduce the margin of error.”

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