Loading...
The Daily Dose Blog The Daily Dose Blog Home

Space junk to come crashing down

Global warming may cause satellites to fall back to Earth.

By Rich_Maloof Nov 12, 2012 5:15PM

Don’t look now, but there are tons of junk floating over your head.

In the past half-century we’ve launched thousands of artificial satellites into space, and they remain up there, circling our planet, whether they’re operational or not. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program estimates there are more than 6,000 tons of space junk in lower Earth orbit.

Photo: Pete Turner/Getty ImagesIgnoring for a moment that we’ve actually managed to pollute space (space!), the orbiting junkyard would seem to be a threat only to other satellites and spacecraft — that is, as long as it stays up there in orbit.

More on MSN Living: Money rules that'll make you rich

But scientists are now concerned that global warming may cause more collisions between “dead” satellites and space debris, in turn increasing the risk of space junk crashing down to earth.

If you want to know what kind of impact a crashing space object can have on Earth, visit a town-sized impact site like Meteor Crater in Arizona. Or ask a dinosaur. Many of them are still bitter.

The problem is carbon dioxide emissions are cooling the upper atmosphere where most satellites and debris orbit. Though the greenhouse effect warms the lower atmosphere, where gases are trapped and heated by the sun, carbon dioxide has the opposite effect at greater altitudes. A cooled upper atmosphere exerts less “drag” on satellites, so that rather than orbiting through a thick soup they stream through a thinner thermosphere. The cooled upper atmosphere allows the debris to draw collectively closer to Earth and increases the chances of pieces crashing into one another.

More on MSN Living: Get your life back in order

Even a tiny paint chip in orbit becomes a missile capable of smashing a satellite into thousands of pieces. With more debris comes a greater chance of collisions (a scenario known as the Kessler syndrome, named for Don Kessler, the "father of space junk") and more space scraps potentially in uncontrolled descent toward Earth.

A similar phenomenon is what caused Skylab to crash down. Space.com notes that nobody was hurt when pieces of Skylab rained down southeast of Perth, Australia, though the nearby town of Esperance did charge NASA $400 for littering. We also dodged disaster when the Russian space station Mir, which was as large as six school buses, fell into the South Pacific near Fiji.

But with more satellites in orbit, more collisions, and a thinning upper atmosphere, we won’t always be so lucky. More frightening was when the nuclear-powered Cosmos 954, a Soviet spy satellite, came down and spread radioactive debris over northwestern Canada.

We earthlings have become reliant on artificial satellites for communication and scientific experimentation, and we've left the dead ones up there based on the principle that what goes into orbit, stays in orbit. Until it doesn’t.

Photo: Pete Turner/Getty Images

Subscribe to the Daily Dose

Bing: See amazing images from space.

More on MSN Living:
10 commandments of texting
10 secrets to a happy life
Sexiest women over 40

113Comments
Nov 16, 2012 4:22AM
avatar
Silly me, I though it was because of Gravitation. I knew Galileo Galilei  and Sir Isaac Newton were a couple of wack jobs
Nov 13, 2012 8:48PM
avatar
New penalty for littering is Astral community service. Orange spacesuits for offenders who have to retrieve junk for recycling.
Nov 13, 2012 8:47PM
avatar
I was driving in my car the other day and got to work a bit shakey.  I had some object come at my car windshield at about 200 mph.  (It seemed like).  I caught it out of the corner of my eye for a very brief, brief second.  When it hit the windshield it was so hard that it only knicked it but it left a circle of white dust.  It was so fast and so hard that the glass turned into a powder.  There were NO cars in front of me, NO cars across or behind me.  I was alone driving in a wide open area.  It scared me to death!  What glimpse I got I would say it was the size of a quarter maybe.  I got to work and called my husband and told my boss.  I told them that moonrocks flew out of the sky and hit my BMW windshield..."ya right" they said.  You had to be there to understand.  Oh well.  I know and that's all that matters!
Nov 13, 2012 8:46PM
avatar
Wow, never read a more idiotic article and idiotic conclusions. Wow, just Wow!
Nov 13, 2012 8:43PM
avatar
Let me get this right as I am having difficulty grasping this science. Cooling temps in outer atmosphere cause CO2 to expand(this is opposite to what i was taught, cooling causes things to condense) causing less drag on spacecraft drawing them closer to earth(another opposite) and then the debris from the spacecrafts that collect mysteriously in close Earth orbit all of the sudden come crashing down and makes a hole in Arizona killing the dinosaurs? Is this what the writer basically said?
Nov 13, 2012 8:42PM
avatar
I have to say; The mush for brains person who wrote this article; 1. Has no clue of orbital mechanics. 2. Is promoting their own political agenda. MSN, This kind of crap should never make it to this site.
Nov 13, 2012 8:36PM
avatar
Although the science is faulty here-thinner upper atmosphere means objects retain higher velocities and stay in orbit LONGER, atmospheric drag and tidal gravity will eventually bring it all down.  Even the moon is slowing down infinitesimally, but that won't be a problem for some time.  The space junk danger is a catch-22, though.  The more launches there are, the more junk there is.  The ISS has to be moved every so often to avoid collisions.  And a paint chip impact almost penetrated a window on one of the shuttles.  Blowing up the larger pieces, like boosters and satellites would only make THOUSANDS more pieces to keep track of.  Don't know if vaporization by laser is feasible yet, but would be good practice for the world's militaries.
The good news is that approximately 100 tons (per NASA) of natural and man-made space debris falls every DAY!  Mother Nature is tidy-who knew.  If we could find a way to put less clutter up there, the skies would get clearer naturally.  I'm pulling for super-conductor powered anti-gravity ships.  Humor me, they said faster-than-sound was impossible, too.  Have a Nice Day.....Chicken Little

Nov 13, 2012 8:34PM
avatar
Interesting that the author of this is comparing the damage of a falling space object (such as a satellite) to a "town-sized impact site like Meteor Crater in Arizona", you have the scare factor cranked way up with that one, a shame there is no man made object up there that could replicate that type of damage. But it was an entertaining fictional article.
Report
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
Categories
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?

inspire: live a better life

  • Off-season vacation destinations

    The 10 best off-season vacation deals in the world

    Summer and winter tend to hog all the glory when it comes to travel high seasons. Sure, you want to soak up all the time at the beach you can during the summer, and you just want to escape the cold during the last months of the year.

  • Best places for fall foliage

    The 16 best places to see fall foliage

    Who just wants to stand around and watch the red and gold leaves slowly fall from their tree branches to the ground as we move from summer to fall? Instead, take in the changing seasons while you're on the move.

  • 30 things you learn in your 30s

    30 things that will (probably) happen in your 30s

    In September, I'll turn 38. I'm at the age now where, when people ask how old I am, it takes me a minute to remember. I don't know if that's because I've already been 37 different ages and it's hard to keep straight which one I am now, or if it's because I'm in denial, or if it's because I am going senile. Maybe a combination of all of the above. Regardless, my 30s have flown by and soon they will be but a memory. So, in an effort to preserve the memory I have left (or at least keep a record of it), and to celebrate what has been an amazing decade so far, here are 30 things that have happened to me in my 30s (and will probably happen to you too):

  • Great travel tech gadgets

    The 8 best travel tech accessories for every trip

    Traveling doesn't have to be stressful. And what you can fit in your carry-on can make all the difference (and not just a fresh pair of socks), especially when you get that low battery signal.

  • The Science

    5 surprising ways to live longer

    Volunteering (and these other rituals) might be just as good as exercise when it comes to extending your life.

  • Don’t hit snooze

    7 cures for a case of the Mondays

    Use these tricks to set a better tone for the rest of the week.

  • King's Night: Amsterdam, Holland

    The 10 wildest celebrations in the world

    Whether it involves a food fight, mermaids or a torch-lit procession, people the world over know how to have a good time. Here are some of the biggest, boldest, booziest celebrations around, along with some tips to get the full experience.

  • green brain image (Courtesy of Newser)

    Scientists turn bad memories to happy ones

    Research could mean more effective treatment for human disorders.

  • Cultura\Getty Images(Cultura\Getty Images)

    4 reasons journaling is good for you

    An entry a day might keep the doctor away (or at least the shrink).

  • Getty Images(Getty Images)

    Appreciating the Small Things in Life

    One woman's shout-outs to daily moments of joy — and how to cultivate them.

  • Woman jogging (Photo: Huffington Post)
  • Getty Images // Magazine

    Little ways to feel healthier and happier

    Our best health and fitness tips including the one move that tones all, berry news, and more.

Loading...
about rich maloof
Loading...
buzzing now on msn living
Loading...
inspire videos
editor's picks
Loading...