Cleaning up Low-Earth-Orbit Debris Might Lead to New Space Technologies.
For nearly 40 years—from the launch of Sputnikin 1957 to 1995, when NASA issued the world's first space pollution guidelines—space-faring nations acted just like my cousin: Whenever they were in space, they would casually throw trash out the window.
And now those cans are coming home to roost. On Feb. 10, 2009, for the first time, two big satellites accidentally collided. A derelict Russian communications satellite,Cosmos 2251, ran into a working American one owned by the company Iridium, adding more than 2,000 trackable pieces of debris to the 19,000 already in orbit. It's tough to predict where the more than 22,000 pieces of debris currently in orbit (each bigger than about 10 centimeters, the smallest trackable size) will go. The U.S. Air Force had informed Iridium that theCosmossatellite would pass within a couple of thousand feet, but it disregarded the warning.
The collision was the first step in what Donald Kessler, a NASA scientist, had predicted in 1978: a chain reaction in which collisions created more debris, which in turn begot more collisions.
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