NASA identifies Top Ten space junk missions

NASA says over 19,000 pieces of space junk are known to exist

While the recently released US National Space Policy has given NASA and the Defense Dept., new impetus to work toward removing space debris, the space agency this month outlined the top 10 reasons so much junk is out there in the first place.

NASA' s Orbital Debris Program Office this month said that while over 4,700 space missions have taken place worldwide since the beginning of what it called the Space Age, only 10 missions account for one-third of all cataloged objects currently in Earth orbit and of that, six of these 10 debris producing events occurred within the past 10 years. Debris from China the US and former Soviet Union spacecraft make up majority of junk floating in space. Approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm are known to exist, NASA stated.

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Examples of what NASA calls orbital debris include: "Derelict spacecraft and upper stages of launch vehicles, carriers for multiple payloads, debris intentionally released during spacecraft separation from its launch vehicle or during mission operations, debris created as a result of spacecraft or upper stage explosions or collisions, solid rocket motor effluents, and tiny flecks of paint released by thermal stress or small particle impacts. "

According to NASA the Top 10 space junk producing missions are:

  • Name                           Year of Breakup     Debris items Cause of Breakup
  • Fengyun-1C                     2007                     2,841          Intentional Collision
  • Cosmos 2251                   2009                     1,267          Accidental Collision
  • STEP 2 Rocket Body         1996                      713            Accidental Explosion
  • Iridium 33                        2009                     521            Accidental Collision
  • Cosmos 2421                   2008                     509            Unknown
  • SPOT 1 Rocket Body        1986                     492            Accidental Explosion
  • OV2-1/LCS 2 Rocket Body 1965                    473            Accidental Explosion
  • Nimbus 4 Rocket Body       1970                   374            Accidental Explosion
  • TES Rocket Body               2001                   370            Accidental Explosion
  • CBERS 1 Rocket Body       2000                   343            Accidental Explosion

NASA noted that the breakup of the Russian Briz-M orbital stage that broke-up into an estimated 1000 plus fragments in February 2007 has not been catalogued because of what it called the "highly elliptical nature of the stage's orbit" has impeded the U.S. Space Surveillance Network's ability to detect, to identify, and catalog the debris.   The SSN is tracking more than 19,000 objects in orbit about the Earth.

According to there is a potentially bigger junk producer on the horizon:  "The European Space Agency (ESA) in three years will become the owner of what is possibly the most dangerous piece of space debris circling the Earth: the 8,000-kilogram Envisat Earth observation satellite.  Envisat, whose mission has been extended to 2013, appears to set records wherever it goes. Launched in 2002, it was the biggest nonmilitary Earth observation satellite ever built. At $2.9 billion in today's dollars, it is one of the most expensive. Its mission is viewed as a success by its users, all the more so insofar as the original five-year mission has been stretched to 11 years. And now, once in retirement and in a near-polar orbit at 782.4 kilometers in altitude, Envisat will become what space debris experts say is a huge problem that will not go away for about 150 years."

While the junk seems to be piling up, there are efforts to try to contain it.  Most recently the Obama administration issued a National Space Policy that among many other things requires the US to: "Lead the continued development and adoption of international and industry standards and policies to minimize debris, such as the United Nations Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines... Pursue research and development of technologies and techniques, through the Administrator of NASA and the Secretary of Defense, to mitigate and remove on-orbit debris, reduce hazards, and increase understanding of the current and future debris environment."

Meanwhile the Air Force plans to launch the Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, which is supposed to detect  debris, spacecraft or other distant space objects. The satellite, which was to go up this year, has been delayed and no new launch date has been set.

Last year Northrop Grumman grabbed $30 million from the US Air Force to start developing the first phase of a global space surveillance ground radar system. The new S-Band Space Fence is part of the Department of Defense's effort to track and detect what are known as resident space objects (RSO), consisting of thousands of pieces of space debris as well as commercial and military satellites. The new Space Fence will replace the current VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961.  The Space Fence will provide continuous space situational awareness by detecting smaller objects in low and medium earth orbit. The current system requires constant sustainment intervention to maintain operations and does not address the growing population of small and micro satellites in orbit.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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