‘Gravity’, the new movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts, has been getting lots of press for its amazing cinematography and depiction of life in Earth orbit. The stunning visuals, along with the characters’ actions in space combined with the lack of sound are completely believable. That isn’t to say the film was air-tight, but it did get one very important thing completely right: orbital debris.
The problems in ‘Gravity’ start when Russia destroys a spy satellite on orbit. The debris from the event causes a chain reaction that wipes out most of the other satellites in orbit, and puts George and Sandra in dire peril. Back in the real world, this scenario is a growing concern among many space experts, and it’s important to take note of the status of the situation and what is being done to prevent it.
Humans have been launching objects into space since before the Space Race began in the 1950’s, and much of what was launched is still up there. Not just satellites and tools, but everything from rocket boosters to part of an astronaut glove. Some estimates report that over 21,000 pieces over 10 cm (4 inches) are currently in orbit, and the number of pieces under that size exceeds 500,000. Some estimates even put the number of objects smaller than 1 cm (0.5 inches) at over 100 million.
Even the smallest pieces of debris can be deadly, because they can be moving at 27,350 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour). Even paint chips are dangerous at those speeds…the space shuttle’s front windows were hit by meteoroids, paint chips, and other space junk over 1,600 times, forcing NASA to replace 92 shuttle windows!
Lucky for us, the space industry is already working on solutions to the space debris problem. One solution comes from Tethers Unlimited, who has a product that when attached to a spacecraft, uncoils a drag line that slows the craft’s descent after de-orbit. Then there’s Texas A&M University, which has an orbital debris sweeper called Sling-Sat under development. And finally, a design using ground based lasers to zap debris and slow it down has been proposed by NASA. While none of these products have been tested in the field, their designs are sound, and in most cases, the technology required is readily available. With a growing NewSpace industry using radical new solutions and out-of-the-box thinking, the disaster depicted in ‘Gravity’ may never come to pass.