On Friday a number of movers and shakers in the space sector met at London's Royal Astronomical Society to support the launch of 'Adrift,' an interactive art project that aims to raise awareness about the dangers of space debris.
In the 60 years since the launch of Sputnik I—the first artificial object placed into orbit—space agencies have managed to create hundreds of millions of pieces of orbital debris. The vast majority of this debris (nearly 200 million pieces) are smaller than one centimeter, about 670,000 pieces are between 1 and 10 centimeters, and approximately 29,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters in orbit.
While millions of specks of space trash might not sound so bad, when they're moving at thousands of miles per hour in orbit they can do serious damage. ESA astronaut Tim Peake reminded the world of this threat earlier this year when he took a picture of a 7mm crack in the International Space Station's cupola window that was likely caused by a rogue chip of paint only a few thousandths of a millimeter across.
While it is impossible to track the millions of pieces of micro-debris in orbit, NASA and other space agencies are keeping tabs on most of the 29,000 larger pieces of debris, which pose a serious threat to the safety of crewed missions. These pieces of debris are the subject of 'Adrift,' a collaborative art project led by Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan who have created a machine that tracks 27,000 pieces of space junk in real time and turns them into music as they pass overhead.
The art project also allows anybody to 'adopt' one of three different pieces of space junk, which will tweet at you every time the object passes overhead. The first piece of space debris up for adoption is the Vanguard I, the first solar powered satellite. Vanguard I was launched by the United States in 1958 making it the oldest object still in orbit.
Then there's the SuitSat, a Russian spacesuit that is full of trash was pushed out of the ISS in 2006 with a radio unit attached to it. The suit was nicknamed Ivan Ivanovich—the Russian equivalent of John Doe—which was also the name given to the mannequin used to test the Vostok spacecraft in the lead up to the Soviet Union's first crewed missions. The SuitSat-1 fell out of orbit within a few weeks of its deployment, so it is unclear which piece of debris the SuitSat's Twitter account is tracking.
The final piece of space junk up for adoption is a piece from Fengyun-1C, a Chinese weather satellite that was intentionally destroyed by China with an anti-satellite missile in 2007. This particular event nearly doubled the amount of space debris in orbit in one fell swoop and raised concerns about the calamitous results of kinetic warfare in space.
The music machine and debris adoption program are all in service of 'Adrift,' a mini-documentary focusing on the threat of space junk and the ongoing attempts to get it under control. Barring space warfare, some scientists are wringing their hands at the idea of Kessler Syndrome, an uncontrollable chain of collisions that would exponentially increase the amount of space debris in orbit once the amount of space junk in orbit reaches a certain threshold. Which is to say that if you want a vision of the future, imagine space junk ramming into space junk…forever.
Although the International Telecommunications Union now requires that anyone who deploys a satellite must be able to deorbit the satellite within 25 years, space scientists are still grappling with how to remove the space junk that is already in orbit to stave off catastrophe. This has led to some pretty wild ideas for capturing and disposing of space junk, including blasting it with lasers and huge nets.
Check out the mini-documentary here: