Carefree Debris

I saw an article the other day on The Conversation website with the headline, “Mars Is Littered With Space Junk.” The person who wrote it, Cagri Kilic, is a postdoctoral research fellow who has been studying ways to track Mars and Moon rovers. Not that this is Mars-shattering news, but debris on Mars according to Kilic comes from three main sources…discarded hardware, inactive spacecraft, and crashed spacecraft.

Taking the last scenario first, sometimes even while surviving the long journey there, descent to the planet’s surface is where things go horribly wrong. Splat. Trash.

The first scenario describes the planned discharge of parts while descent is taking place like heat shields, foam, netting, and parachutes. Don’t need these anymore. We’re good. Trash.

In the middle scenario, we have all of the spacecraft which have landed successfully, served their tour of duty before running out of juice, and have signed off for the final time. Thank you for your service. Trash.

Kilic has run the numbers and determined there is 15,694 pounds of Earth’s junk on Mars. That’s not so much on the surface (see what I did there?). Then again, that’s really easy for me to say. I don’t live on Mars.

However, while Earthlings never had a plan to do anything other than litter debris across Mars, we have now realized a plan needs to be in place for knowing where all this trash is. As part of its daily activities, NASA’s active rover Perseverance – using its Ingenuity helicopter – is helping engineers document all the junk it comes across. The space agency indicated their Curiosity rover was able to identify some of its own debris during its earlier mission.

There is a concern at NASA some trash might contaminate or skew samples the Perseverance rover is currently collecting. While the risk is judged to be quite low, the rover’s ability to roam at all might even be hindered.

I remember watching Americans walk on the Moon and thinking in my lifetime we would definitely establish a colony there. That was 1969. The last American to walk on the Moon did so three years later.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict we won’t see any Americans living on the Moon in my lifetime.

By the way, there’s an estimated 400,000 pounds of our junk on the Moon.

Mars and the Moon are both better off if we don’t ever try to live on them anyway, since we’ve already done a stellar job of junking up Earth.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with NASA as I have gotten older. While I know space exploration has led to some great innovations and discoveries which have positively impacted other industries, I wonder if we’re still really getting that same return on investment today. I know NASA’s budget is fairly small potatoes in the big picture, but money is money. Resources are resources. The fact we didn’t do more with the Moon once landing there in 1969, and the fact NASA has now indicated they actually want to circle back to the Moon, gives me the impression they are as an organization quite the rudderless spaceship.

In doing due diligence for this post, your space-y reporter was also curious about all space debris in orbit (for now, at least). One interesting tidbit I came across claimed a tiny, ten-centimeter-long piece of spacecraft trash could cause as much damage as twenty-five sticks of dynamite…that even a piece between one and ten centimeters can do damage to most spacecraft.

Between the U.S., Russia, and China, at the beginning of this year there were approximately 15,000 trackable pieces of debris – larger than 10 centimeters across – in space. For the record, most of China’s came from the time they used a “kinetic kill vehicle” to deliberately destroy a defunct weather satellite in an anti-satellite weapons test back in 2007.

Of course, the U.S. simply couldn’t help themselves from doing the exact same thing just a year later, deliberately destroying a non-functioning satellite with a “heavily-modified missile.”

Those events provide us with the definitive, gold standard answer to the question of whether Earthlings care where space junk goes. No.

And…just last month we had NASA’s much-publicized course correction of an asteroid (minding its own business, mind you) courtesy of a “kinetic impactor.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said after the allegedly successful asteroid diversion, “All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have. This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us.”

It seems to me we’re throwing way more at the universe than it’s throwing at us.


Picture Courtesy iStock

61 thoughts on “Carefree Debris”

  1. Oh, well done and well said… I have lived on this beautiful planet for six decades now, and each year, I feel the increasing weight of the terrible legacy we are leaving our descendants. “( ) And geez, we haven’t even stopped at the borders of our own planet 🤷‍♀️😔 Quite the rudderless spaceship” indeed…😔😔😔

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we need to get to grips with the idea that everything is finite- even space. We as humans just seem to be doing an increasingly grand job of messing things up.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I understand there are several vintage hasselblad cameras on the moon. Imagine if someone went up there to recover some of the junk how much it would be worth at auction. Step one clean up. Step two everything sent up has to come back down as mission policy.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. We can’t even keep our own planet clean, and now we’re dumping on Mars and the moon? Why am I not surprised.
    Ironically, I received a card in the mail that our Mayor’s Neighborhood Clean-up will be in my neighborhood in a couple weeks. All the trash that doesn’t fit in our trash bins (couches and chairs, I’m looking at you) goes out on the street for a special pick-up. Drive around the ‘hood and realize it all starts right here on Earth. Shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We are allowed to put out one bulk trash item per week. The irony is the trash and recycling company rarely ever sees them. We have an enterprising junk businessperson who roams the area and collects what they want. I wonder what they do with their trash?🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. And that’s just the stuff that’s managed to land somewhere. Think of what is still held up by gravitational pull, orbiting aimlessly around objects. But humans will still be compelled to do the bigger and better routine for as long as we exist because that’s what we do.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My sister and I talked about this when I was in Michigan a few weeks ago. We agreed that humans trash everything wherever we go including Mars which is in my view a complete waste of money as it’s a dead world. Why go there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I just assumed when we “gave up” on the Moon in 1972, we were all done with space exploration. All of that money and resources just to say we walked there? Mars is our “shiny new thing” we can’t keep our hands off of right now. I don’t know why. And now, they also want to go back to the Moon. After fifty years?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. None of this makes sense! Why go to the moon or Mars? This serves zero purposes, meanwhile, those millions wasted on this need to be spent on helping people in this country. Homeless veterans, homeless everywhere. Human priorities are so ridiculous.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am glad that I am not the only one who finds space such a waste of money at this time for humanity. Such a joke! Let us help people first, not looking for ET…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. So ironic that on the comic page in our newspaper, ‘Shoe’ has two boxes. First box, the TV announcer says, “Fifty-three years ago, America put a man on the moon.” Second box, Shoe says, “It’s crazy that we thought to put a man on the moon before we had the idea to put wheels on luggage.” Think of all the trash we would have saved.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting post. I do think we’ll be setting up some sort of permanent space lab on the moon, probably in the next decade. NASA is hell-bent on returning to the moon per their upcoming Artemis mission. I”m still baffled by the fascination with Mars, though. From all the data we collected, it’s an absolute hell hole where we would be forced to live underground. Elon Musk can have it. Ultimately, we need to put all our resources back into mother earth. Climate change is real and will only get worse. I fear the planet we are leaving my young nieces and nephews.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Your post reminds me of the George Carlin bit on “Stuff”. I had no idea we had so much stuff floating around in space. SO much stuff! That we’ve contributed almost half a million pounds of stuff . . . okay junk to the moon should tell you everything you ever wanted to know about humankind. It’s not very flattering.

    I always thought NASA would have made plans to build its own planet, but apparently, George Lucas isn’t THAT influential . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is an interesting perspective. It takes a while before we wake up and realize we need to clean up our mess. I can still sing the jingle from the early 60’s, “We’ve got to pitch in to clean up America”. It was the start, and it has taken decades, yet it’s happening. As for the Moon and Mars, we’re starting to clean it up, like we started in America in the early 60’s. I see that as a great positive. And, we can’t blame NASA for the pull-back after we landed on the Moon. Sadly, that was politics and government spending. Thanks for the post, Bruce!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. We just don’t seem to think things through, do we? Or was there warning in the early days of NASA that this could be the outcome? I don’t know. I don’t think things have ever been easy here on Planet Earth, but it’s reaching a tipping point. But hey–6-0! Your boys beat the Cowboys. Woo-hoo! Find joy where you can.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. An interesting post! We would probably junk up the whole Milky Way if we thought it would not come back to haunt us. Maybe one day there will be a big trash mountain on the moon. Space trucks dumping it all on the backside as they fly by! No one would ever see it back there… right?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Sadly, I feel like the interest in space and Mars, even the moon, has to do with an escape route for a certain few, if and when the time comes. Like… all of Elon Musk’s descendants will be living on Mars once Earth has been wrung out and has nothing left. And it wouldn’t matter if they survived and thrived. They’d continue to destroy that too, obviously, since we already have a head start, lol

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Just a few days ago, I read that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their boots behind on the moon to compensate for the samples they were bringing back to earth. They didn’t want to weigh down the return capsule. Who knew? But that helps explain why there is so much space junk, I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

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