Space debris update

The latest Orbital Debris Quarterly News has the good news that, barring another satellite collision or other debris-creating event, the number of catalogued debris should drop over the next two years. The deliberate destruction of the Fengyun-1C satellite in January 2007 created 3,218 pieces of trackable debris, and only about 200 of those have re-entered the atmosphere. As the solar activity increases leading up to solar maximum in 2013, more of that debris should be cleared out. (Note to our readers in the northern latitudes – look for more auroras.)

Speaking of space debris, an experiment from 1963 deliberately placed millions of tiny copper needles in medium Earth orbit. Project West Ford created an artificial ionosphere to help the military, back in the days before communication satellites. The needles were 0.7 inches long and less than half the diameter of human hair (17.8 micrometers). These were the right size dipole antennas for the 8 GHz wavelength used in the study. Most of them re-entered the atmosphere by 1970, but there are still some in orbit today. A spacecraft from an earlier attempt in 1961 is also still in orbit. Protests over this experiment led to the addition of a consultation clause in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, basically, ask before you do something that might wreck space for the rest of us. Adding more of these dipole antennas could have wrecked radio and microwave telescope observations.

6 thoughts on “Space debris update”

  1. Roamy, what spacecraft from 1961 is still in orbit? Sounds like a micrometeorite / material science lab project just waiting for funding.

    1. The first West Ford experiment was part of the MIDAS-4 launch on an Atlas Agena-B, and it never deployed. There’s older spacecraft in orbit; in fact, Vanguard 1 (1958) is still up there.

      We wrote a proposal for the Shuttle to bring back the UARS satellite some years ago to study the debris impacts and material degradation. No go.

      By far the most fascinating returned hardware for me was Surveyor 3. During the Apollo 12 mission, Alan Bean and Charles Conrad retrieved some parts that had been on the Moon for two and a half years.

    2. Roamy, have you seen any reports on the observations made of the hardware returned from the Moon? I may have seen something about stuff being brought back, but don’t remember anything of it, or hearing of any reports about what observations were gleaned about the hardware.

      They should not have shot down your proposal. That would have been a useful thing to do.

  2. Roamy, thanks. Fascinating. Three Vanguards made orbit out of 11 launches. The last, Vanguard 3, made orbit in 1959.

    All three Vanguards are still in orbit, and of use to science.

    Well done, NRL.

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