NASA: Solar blasts decreased orbital debris in 2011

Increased solar activity brings orbital trash back to Earth more quickly

nasa sdo sun
While high-levels of solar activity is not good news for satellites, GPS and electronics they can have one benefit: such massive solar bursts can decrease the amounts of dangerous orbital debris.

In fact the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office today said the increase in solar activity over the past year actually decreased the number of cataloged debris in Earth orbit during 2011.   This increase in the Sun's activity, known as the solar maximum is expected to peak next year.

How is that possible? Nicholas Johnson, NASA Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris explains:

"Increased solar activity heats the Earth's atmosphere, causing it to expand.  This increases the density of the atmosphere at any given altitude.  This, in turns, increases drag on the satellite, causing it to fall back to Earth more quickly.  The increase in drag is most noticeable at altitudes of 800 km and below.  Most of the large, derelict objects which should be removed are at altitudes between 800 km and 1000 km.  Typically, above 500 km there is very little orbital decay except during periods of solar maximum."

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Johnson added that there were similar debris decreases during the solar maximum of 1989.  "There would have also been a decrease around 2000, but new debris was being created at a faster rate than solar max was removing the old debris.  Fortunately, since 2009 the creation of new debris has been greatly reduced - thanks to international efforts," he said.

In the absence of a new major satellite breakup, the overall orbital debris population should continue to decrease during 2012 and 2013, Johnson stated.

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NASA also had other good news on the debris front: The year 2011 ended with the least number of  identified satellite breakups since 2002. Moreover, the number of long-lived, 10 cm and larger debris appears to have been only a few dozen. NASA said only three standard satellite breakups were detected by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network during the year.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  and on Facebook

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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