Space Trash: What is it? What can we do about it?


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Space trash 

Most of us, even if just in passing, have at least heard about “space trash” or “space debris”, but to bring you up to speed for the sake of this discussion, space debris, in brief, is all the manmade leftover byproducts of human space exploration still orbiting our planet. According to NASA, the first manmade object to reach space was the American “Bumper-WAC” powered by a German V2 Rocket, reaching 244 miles above the earth, launched at Cape Canaveral in 1949. For those keeping score at home, 1949 is 4 years after Germany’s surrender after World War 2. The V2 being developed by Warner Von Braun’s team of German researchers. However, a minimal amount of additional research will reveal the first manmade object in space was the German V-2, technically called the A-4, during war time in 1942. The A-4 reached a height of 55 miles. Not to get too far off track, but the disparity between the two claims is understandable as the boundary between our atmosphere and outer space is relatively arbitrary, depends on who you ask, and fluctuates depending on atmospheric conditions. For example, the Karman line popularly defines the edge of space 100km above sea level, simply because Theodore von Karman knew it was close enough to the fluctuating mathematical definition of space and 100 is an easy number to remember. It actually fluctuates between 85 and 100km. This means while the A-4 could have technically crossed into space, and very likely did, the “Bumper-WAC” DEFINITELY did by any measure.  

In Aeronautical terms, the definition of outer space has to do with the ability of the atmosphere to provide lift. Eventually, as you leave the atmosphere, only centrifugal force contributes to gaining altitudeIn layman’s terms, going fast enough to counter Earth’s gravity without the aid of atmospheric lift. Side note, this is also why airplanes can only fly so high. Eventually you get so high up that there’s not enough air for the wings to hold on to. A loose, but not principally parallel mental comparison would be to understand that a boat can’t float without enough water underneath it. Jet engines also need oxygen to combust jet fuel…but let’s get back on track.  

We’ve been putting crap in space for at least three quarters of a century and it’s starting to pile up.  Now the first question the passing listener might ask is “who cares? It’s up in space, the ocean garbage is what we need to focus on.” 

That’s correct, and before ships could reach other continents, villagers only cared about their town rivers and lakes. 

Only later, much later, did humanity realize the global societal impact of polluted oceans after hundreds of years of abuse. Granted, not hundreds of years of willfully malicious abuse, science was not advanced enough at the time to understand the danger. 

But it is now, and we have to advantage of scientific wisdom to stay out in front of polluting humankind’s newest ocean before it’s too late. 

If by the time humanity has unlocked the science to explore the stars, what good is it if we can’t leave port? 

We can’t afford hindsight to be 20/20 when we have the foresight now, today. 

So, what can be done to start reducing our cosmic footprint and not allow current waste to impact future exploration? 

That’s what this episode of Midweek Geek is about. Opening a discussion on possible solutions and theories, or at worst, an additional discussion on the matter in the hopes that it can add valuable information to other’s on the subject. You never know. The solution can very well come from a YouTube comment section posted by a shy soul in a corner of the internet no one noticed before. Maybe YOU listening to this are sitting in that dark corner. If that’s you, I need you to know, despite any bullying or lost faith in humanity, your voice matters and can very well change the course of history…so don’t be afraid. Your worth listening to. You really are. PLEASE know that. Engrave the FACT of your worthiness into the core of your heart.  So, I’ll start things off by offering my idea. It may be completely impractical. It may not work in the initial incarnation of my offering. In other words, my beta 0.1 version might not hold much current value, but may be built open by YOUR input and become something viable.  That being said, my very basic, simple, initial idea is to start putting neodymium magnets into orbit. Probably big ol’ N55 rated 10 pounders. Or more. Or less. Whatever works best. And we don’t have to launch them up there exclusively with conventional rockets, we can hurl them up there maybe with rail guns or some other ballistic means. Once it’s up there, it begins to accumulate mass by attaching to various magnetic debris. In addition to magnetism, all thought slight, it would technically have gravity. Gravity that would mathematically increase as the glob grows in mass. As it grows in mass, eventually its orbit decreases enough to reenter the atmosphere and burn up.  Of course this is just theoretical. I’m counting on any of you more well versed in physics and mathematics than I to either confirm or correct.   

Part of me wonders, “ok, the magnet is in orbit, what if it gets damaged by other high velocity debris?” As my mind ponders and wonders (a beautiful practice I’d recommend to anyone, by the way) I wonder about the need for protecting the magnet. Maybe put it inside a protective shield. Then I consider the weight this would add, and whether or not it’s necessarily a bad thing for one big magnet to shatter into smaller magnets flying off in all directions…like a street sweeper exploding into hundreds of Roombas. Part of the resulting debris field would be deflected into atmospheric reentry anyway, potentially speeding up the cleanup process. 

Further along in my ponderings I wonder if this is a viable plan in the scope of timeline. If it takes decades for this method to work, what’s the point? Then I think, it could work just fine since we’re so far ahead of the issue that decades in the grand scheme of things is the blink of an eye. The main point being that our path to the stars is clear of debris by the time we have the technology to make the voyage in the first place. In this case, the fact that it could take centuries could be inconsequential. The point is that we don’t get centuries into the future and then be stifled by inaction in the past. 

As I wrap up here, Joe Bond our digital program director stepped in a minute ago and we got to talking about this episode. He offered up the off the cuff idea of sending nukes up there to blast and or vaporize the trash. Needless to say that welcomes a litany of counter considerations or theoretical tweaking, but the fun of all this is that any alternative counterpoints and discussion is up to YOU!  

It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from. You may be a cat linguist and have never thought so critically about outer space, let alone cleaning space trash. But maybe you’ve noticed how kitty liter clumps to peeps and poops. Even if your idea is to fire Fee Fee’s turds into orbit to stick to micro-material, it’s still a welcomed idea. Because while cat turds might not be used in the end, it could spark someone else to come up with a more viable turd al-TURD-ative….get it? Ok I think that’s a good place to end it.  Thank you so much for joining me this week. If you had fun, please consider subscribing and sharing the love. All are welcomed to enjoy Geek Therapy Radio each week and there’s something for everyone. Just subscribe to the podcast and peruse the episode titles. There’s good stuff in there. The podcast is available everywhere, but especially the iHeartradio app, Spreaker, iTunes, Pocket Casts, Google Podcasts, or you can even ask say “Alexa, play the Geek Therapy Radio Podcast” to which she’ll reply “getting the latest episode of Geek Therapy Radio with Johnny Hemberger form iHeart Radio.” She’s so cool like that. If you’re watching this on YouTube, don’t be a stranger. Slap that subscribe button and interact with the channel.  No matter what you do, whether you subscribe to the podcast, the YouTube channel, or listen on KPRC 950AM Saturday nights, it’s critical that you know that you are loved and worthy. And that no matter where you’re coming from, you are capable of truly great things and it all starts by stimulating your mind. So find a hobby, learn new things, and explore this incredible universe. If I can somehow inspire that in even one person who listens to Geek Therapy Radio, I’ve made my mark and I will be overjoyed.  So until next week, take care my geeks. Explore and be good to yourselves and others.

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