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Friday, May 9, 2014

New Space Fence Could Prevent Real Life ‘Gravity’

A computer image generated by NASA shows objects orbiting Earth, including those in geosynchronous orbit at a high altitude. The objects are not to scale. (NASA)

A computer image generated by NASA shows objects, or “space junk,” orbiting Earth. A new “Space Fence” — a radar system that projects a wall of energy into space to track space debris — could potentially help protect astronauts from catastrophic events like those portrayed in the 2013 film “Gravity.” (NASA)

In the blockbuster film “Gravity,” astronauts became stranded, floating in orbit after “space junk” hit their mission at a heart-racing speed. While the film is more science fiction than fact, there are huge concerns about all the debris in the Earth’s orbit, and how that could affect satellite systems.

Sixty years of activity in space have resulted in about 500,000 pieces of space debris. The detritus ranges from left-over pieces of rockets to a glove that an astronaut dropped in 1965. All of that material has the potential to collide with the 1,100 satellites over the Earth.

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing Friday on how to monitor and reduce the space junk. The Air Force is expected to award a contract in the next few weeks for a “Space Fence.” The fence isn’t really a fence. It’s a radar system that projects a wall of energy into space to track all the bits of junk floating around.

The Air Force shut down its old space fence last year, citing budget concerns. The new fence, expected to come online in 2019, would be even more powerful, with the ability to track objects 5 centimeters in size and larger.

Brian Weeden, an expert on space junk and technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation, testified at the hearing. He said another concern is getting rid of all the junk in space. But it isn’t easy.

“You can imagine a city bus that has been undergoing extreme heat and cold changes for decades, also being imposed with hard radiation, and it’s probably very fragile and brittle. And it’s got a bunch of explosive fuel in it. And it’s spinning. Now — go grab it,” Weeden tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

Weeden said under a best case scenario, up to ten pieces of the largest debris would be removed from space a year. But he said the better plan would be to ensure that we have a more sustainable approach to space travel, so we leave less junk behind going forward.


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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