These incidents happened within the past month and a half:
— Feb. 10, a U.S. Iridium communications and a Russian communications satellite collide, flinging two debris clouds into space. The material could threaten the International Space Station or the space shuttle.
— March 12, the Space Station’s three crew members are forced to huddle in an emergency capsule because another piece of orbiting debris comes too close.
— Last Monday, NASA warned that a four-inch piece of space junk, part of a different Russian military satellite, might come too close to the Space Station, which was soon to rendezvous with Space Shuttle Discovery. Later in the day trackers concluded that the debris wasn’t as close as feared and the station did not need to be maneuvered into a different orbit.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the Feb. 10 crash released 600 pieces of debris. Meanwhile, the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, located at Johnson Space Flight Center, Houston, said 17,000 pieces of junk larger than 10 cm. (3.9 inches) are in orbit around Earth. Particles between 1 and 10 cm. are estimated to number 200,000
NASA tracks the larger pieces, an increasingly difficult effort. It apparently wasn’t aware of the chance of a collision between satellites on Feb. 10 until it happened.
The average impact speed of a piece of space debris and another object, like the Space Station, is about 10 km. (6.21 mi.) per second, or more than 22,000 mph. Junk hurtling at that speed could rip through a spacecraft. Or, as NASA understates it, “Consequently, collisions with even a small piece of debris will involve considerable energy.”
Maybe we need a fleet of orbiting snag boats.
In the 19th century, hundreds of lives were lost on the Mississippi, Red and Arkansas rivers, among others, when steamboats slammed into snags, mostly partly submerged trees. But Henry Miller Shreve, a steamboat captain and an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, invented the snag boat in the late 1820s. The boat cleared so many obstructions that Shreve is credited with making the Arkansas River navigable where once a debris raft 200 miles long had clogged the river.
His snag boats were like catamarans, which have twin hulls. Snags would be leveraged up between the hulls, then cut into manageable size with an on-board sawmill.
Satellite debris need not be ground up. But a fleet of modern-day orbiting snag boats could be launched to snag pieces of space debris and bag them for disposal. Call it snag and bag. These highly maneuverable robot spacecraft could be refueled at the space station while their debris bags are emptied for transport to an earthly disposal center.
Do readers think this is a stupid idea, or does it have some merit? Please comment below.