Monday, July 23, 2007

What, no Bulk Trash Pick-up in Orbit???

The International Space Station is discarding some of it's trash and tossing it to the curb, so to speak. Unfortunately for us, their curb is a decaying orbit around Earth. From CNN.COM today:
Spacewalkers take out the trash
  • Spacewalkers Clayton Anderson and Fyodor Yurchikhin toss junk
  • Space junk: A 1,400-pound ammonia tank, other outdated equipment
  • The ammonia tank was launched in 2001 to provide spare coolant
  • It will orbit the Earth for 10 or 11 months before burning up in the atmosphere
So the folks at the ISS deal with their trash, even dangerous stuff, the way most of us do: Set it out at the curb and hope for the best. Now, back here on good ol' terra firma we expect that those that haul off our trash are taking it to a land fill that meets all sorts of environmental guidelines. In space, they just let it burn up in the atmosphere. If it will burn up. Some things are just a bit too big for that to happen and thus end up right back where it came from.

Now, we aren't talking about big chunks of something like SkyLab coming back to earth in '79 in a semi-controlled re-entry, but we aren't talking about bits of used toilet paper either. NASA is hoping that the bits and pieces will end up falling into the ocean. Of course, this is the same group that smashed a multi-milllion dollar Mars mission because of of some math errors. Not a comforting thought when you think of pieces of metal hurling towards Earth at terminal velocity.

Admittedly, there is a minuscule chance that some of these pieces would cause significant damage or harm. It does, however, bring up the issue of long and short-term planning of NASA and the International Space Agency. They have to have known that they would need to get rid of some bulk items, so why not make sure that there would be room on some shuttle missions to bring some of this junk back? With China getting into the space race, private satellite launches, and other forays into low Earth orbit, eventually the odds will catch up that something bad will happen when some piece of junk comes back to earth. We dodged a bullet when the Space Shuttle Columbia burned up over Texas and Louisiana in 2003. We may not be so lucky in the future.

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