BERLIN – If you want to get a last look at the Chinese satellite Tiangong-1, you should hurry. The 19,000-pound satellite, orbiting Earth at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour every 90 minutes, is likely to have disappeared by the end of this weekend to resurface as a fireball for a minute or more somewhere over the skies of southern Europe, perhaps somewhere else.
While no one can be sure of exactly where the decaying satellite could literally fall from the sky – with pieces that could weigh as much as 220 pounds that would make it to the surface of the earth ̵
First warning signals for the Chinese station appeared in 2016 when they did not respond to orders from their operators. Tiangong-1, a name that translates as a "heavenly palace," would eventually, according to my colleagues, "turn into a man-made" meteor.
While the threat of debris hits a human, the visual drama is extremely small. What could unfold over Europe's skies this weekend could only be a first glimpse of a growing problem, following monotonous predictions in the next Will manifest for decades.
The European Space Agency estimates that there are now more than 170 million pieces of space debris in circulation, though only 29,000 of these are larger than about four inches. While such smaller space debris objects pose no threat to the earth as they would dissolve before they reach the surface, each of these objects can cause damage to a functioning spacecraft. For example, a collision with a (4-inch) object would result in catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite. "Smaller pieces could still destroy spacecraft systems or penetrate shields, potentially preventing larger satellites like Tiangong-1 from responding
Ever since the first satellites were brought to Earth in the mid-twentieth century Orbit has long been treated by nations as a garbage dump that no one felt responsible for – used rockets or old ones Satellites are now mingling with smaller pieces of garbage left behind by human space programs, all of which are faster than orbiting balls.
And as the international community gradually becomes aware of the challenges that arise from it a large part of the damage has already been done.
At a conference in 2011, Gen. William Shelton, a commander of the Space Command of the US Air Force, predicted that much of the Earth's orbit around Earth "could be a rather difficult environment in the not-too-distant future," astronomy website Space.com said. The US military and NASA are both responsible for the most sophisticated system of tracking objects larger than four inches to predict their trajectories and eliminate active equipment.
The problem, Shelton pointed out at the time, is that the accumulation of space debris itself is enough to cause an exponential increase in circulating parts. The more pieces there are, the higher the likelihood that they will collide – and even more smaller objects that can be extremely dangerous to other satellites or space labs.
On Earth, ecosystems can sometimes repair themselves to some extent, even if it could take decades or hundreds of years. But in space, the problem of debris will only get worse.
One possible solution proposed would be to persuade nations to limit their debris and prevent recurrence of past mistakes. It is estimated that in an anti-satellite test in 2007, China produced in low Earth orbit up to 25 percent of the objects in circulation today.
On these NASA charts you can see why the international community was outraged when China increased the debris density of this zone. The stagnation is not evenly distributed on the earth: while some scattered parts are farther away, there is a concentration of objects within the so-called geosynchronous region at about 22,235 miles.
This computer graphic provides a view of the population object in the geosynchronous region. (NASA)
But the highest density of objects can be found in a low Earth orbit within 1240 miles of Earth, which is the area that China targeted in its test. There most satellites can be found.
China has continued its military missile testing since 2007, despite refraining from destroying another satellite in orbit. Observers still fear that other nations could launch their own anti-satellite programs, provoking a kind of arms race in space.
With more than 50 nations now operating their own space programs, few initiatives to limit the spread of space junk have been initiated. Some technological advances had a limited effect, for example, by dropping spent rocket boosters to earth faster than before. (So it could be argued that this weekend's satellite crash could actually help relieve the orbit.) Meanwhile, other nations, such as the UK and Switzerland, have been experimenting with systems to eliminate the clutter. However, the proposed programs are costly and inefficient, apart from legal challenges.
"There are no salvage laws in space, and even if we have the political will to [salvage junk]which I do not think we can, we can not bring down the big pieces because we do not own them." Joan Johnson -Freese, a professor at a naval war college, told the Washington Post in 2014.
Therefore, some academics already argue that the lower orbit could soon be lost altogether. Instead, scientists should design smaller satellites that can travel closer to Earth – and at a safe distance from a part of the orbit that could potentially become a killing zone for satellites.
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