The sky is falling

It was a little disheartening to look in the paper a couple of weeks ago and see a computer-generated image of all the debris floating out in space like a shroud hovering over our beautiful planet. A shroud of junk.

And if you want to, you can go online and see an animated version.

Not only are we sending billions and billions of cell-phone calls out into the otherwise silent atmosphere, we are leaving our trash behind after we finish boldly going wherever our space programs take us.

We started littering the sky with the launch of Sputnik 1 back in 1957. The space program took off (no pun intended) and satellites became star-like objects that we could track with the naked eye. But we'd have to be up in space to get a view of the stuff left behind in the satellites' wake.

And that's what the intrepid crew members of the Space Shuttle Atlantis were hoping not to see when they went up 350 miles to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Newspapers did their usual stellar job (no pun intended) of scaring the wits out of their readers with tales of "thousands of pieces of space junk zipping around the Earth at 20,000 mph." The astronauts would be in danger of having their space suits pierced by one of those tiny, zipping pieces of junk.

The danger was real. NASA put the odds of a catastrophic collision at 1 in 229 and for the first time had a second shuttle, Endeavour, ready to launch in case a rescue mission was needed.

The risk increased the longer the astronauts stayed. They were up there for 13 days. They have since returned, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, space suits intact. Atlantis itself also was a possible target. The space shuttle experienced a small impact to a heat shield panel on its wing but there was no real damage. The 19-year-old Hubble came through the repair mission with its life extended.

In 2007, China aimed at one of its satellites to test a weapon. The test was successful and the satellite exploded, scattering more than 2,500 pieces of debris out into space. One of those pieces zipped close by Atlantis during its Hubble repair mission. The astronauts were at a safe distance and kept on working. Catastrophe averted.

Last February, an old Russian satellite and a U.S. communications satellite crashed into each other. So far, 950 pieces have been spotted from the collision. And there are many more pieces that haven't been spotted.

The Air Force is paying attention to more than 19,000 objects orbiting the Earth. It is assisted by the Aerospace Corporation's Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies. You know you've got a significant problem if there is a special agency set up to deal with it.

According to some reports there may be more than a million pieces of space junk out there. And the stuff is orbiting the Earth as if it were a cluster of satellites. The image in the paper made them look like a swarm of pesky gnats flying around your head on a muggy summer afternoon.

And this is just the stuff that humans have put up there. There were plenty of naturally occurring objects in outer space long before we came on the scene.

All but 9,000 of the bits of man-made space junk are supposed to be smaller than a tennis ball. Seventy thousand of them are even smaller — the size of a postage stamp. Sputnik 1 was 23 inches in diameter, the size of a smallish beach ball.

After three months Sputnik 1 fell to Earth and burned up when it hit our atmosphere. Lots of old, unused or inoperative spacecraft are destined to experience the same fate by design or default. But not all. The Vanguard I satellite, launched by the U.S. in 1958, is still up there.

And sometimes large pieces manage to survive reentry and not burn up. Then what? Or more accurately — then where?

Whatever happened to our mothers' admonition to clean up our rooms? To pick up after ourselves? Our room has gotten very big. And very messy. It has grown beyond the terrestrial borders of our planet to include portions of outer space. Seems to me our responsibility should extend at least that far.

What would Mother Earth say?

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