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