Waste In Space Is A Puzzle With Millions Of Pieces

Oct 16, 2014
Originally published on October 14, 2014 10:07 pm

Space debris probably isn’t at the top of your list of day-to-day concerns.

The junk we’ve left floating around in space includes everything from spent rocket stages and old satellites, to nuts and bolts ― even tiny flecks of paint.

And it’s constantly colliding with satellites and anything else in what's known as “low Earth orbit,” including the International Space Station.

Missouri University of Science and Technology engineering professor William Schonberg has been studying space debris for about 25 years.

And there’s a lot of it.

"There are about 12,000 to 15,000 pieces of material that I would say are softball size and larger," Schonberg said. "Once you get down to the smaller and tinier nuts and bolts and wires, you can easily consider it to have millions of pieces.”

All that junk is hurtling around the Earth at an average velocity of about six miles per second. Exactly how fast is that?

“Let’s say you want to go from St. Louis to Chicago. That’s about 300 miles,” Schonberg said. “Three-hundred divided by six is 50. So, it would take you 50 seconds to go from St. Louis to Chicago. So, that’s pretty fast!”

Schonberg said cleaning up all the fast-moving space debris would be prohibitively expensive.

The best we can do is try to avoid it and to design spacecraft that can withstand its impacts.

Schonberg is speaking about the dangers of space debris on Wednesday from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. in The Living World at Saint Louis Zoo. His talk is co-sponsored by the zoo and the Academy of Science of St. Louis.

Want a preview of some of the issues he’ll be talking about? Listen to my interview with Schonberg, here:

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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