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Space junk a growing hazard to satellites


Debris objects dominating the lower-Earth orbit (Courtesy ESA)
Debris objects dominating the lower-Earth orbit (Courtesy ESA)

Kevan Karanjia, Staff Writer

March 16, 2013 — Space debris circling the Earth is a growing concern as experts warn that precious satellites could be destroyed in a collision.

Artist impression of space debris objects in orbit (Courtesy of ESA)
Artist impression of space debris objects in orbit (Courtesy of ESA)

A Russian satellite was recently destroyed in a collision with a piece of space debris, highlighting the growing concern that the low-Earth orbit is too congested. 

Russia's Ball Lens In The Space (BLITS) nanosatellite was obliterated by a piece of a Chinese anti-satellite weapon that was launched in 2007. 

It's not the first major collision to occur but experts are concerned at the growing frequency. 

Space debris travels at speeds of close to 29,000 km/h, which poses a deadly risk to astronauts. 

NASA estimates that over 500,000 objects larger than a marble and 22,000 bigger than a softball surround the Earth. 

The low-earth orbit is around 2000 km above the planet. 

There have been 4900 space launches as of January 2009 since the beginning of the space age.

The European Space Agency monitors the orbit of satellites and the corresponding space debris. 

According to the agency, the Earth has a way of clearing out the junk from the lower orbit, which can make a difference. 

As the Sun's 11 year solar cycle begins to peak, lower layers of the atmosphere are heated and expand toward higher altitudes, where the air density increases, causing higher air drag on space objects. 

The only problem is that as objects are pulled toward Earth, the low-Earth orbit is populated by new objects from the upper layers.

The International Space Station has debris shields composed of two metal sheets, separated by about 10 cm.

Officials say it is up to satellite operators to take precautions to safeguard their spacecraft.

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