In DepthSpace Science

Air Force turns a keen eye on space junk

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Science  09 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6218, pp. 115
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6218.115

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An estimated 500,000 pieces of space junk—old satellites, rocket parts, debris from collisions—swarm in orbit around Earth. Much of it is potentially deadly: NASA officials say anything larger than 1 centimeter in diameter poses a threat to the International Space Station. But current tracking systems can generally only watch objects 10 cm or larger, and the U.S. government currently follows less than 5% of space hazards—just 23,000 objects. That should change with the addition of a powerful new Air Force radar system, scheduled to break ground this month on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. When it comes online in 2019, the flood of information passed along to nonmilitary spacecraft operators will bring reassurance—but also some wrenching choices about which hazards to ignore.

  • * Ilima Loomis is a freelance journalist based in Hawaii.

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