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NASA okays the polluting of outer space with space station waste

Thursday, November 23, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: NASA, pollution, outer space

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(NewsTarget) The buildup of unwanted clutter from the International Space station has sparked years of debate, so NASA has finally decided that the best approach is to jettison some of the waste into space.

NASA has a reputation for ingraining responsible waste management into its astronauts and partners in space exploration, and has often noted that celestial jumble is a growing concern. Currently the Earth's orbit is littered with old rockets, satellites, motors, nuts, bolts and other disposable equipment from previous space missions. However, NASA is going to curb its concerns temporarily to clear out the space station. The reasoning behind the move is that the unneeded objects cannot be safely transported back to the planet's surface.

"We are only going to be doing it in rare cases under very strict conditions," said Nicholas Johnson, the chief scientist for NASA's orbital debris program.

Most of the debris should burn up in the atmosphere, but they will present a problem until that happens. Currently, NASA is tracking about 13,000 of the largest items in orbit so that the space station can steer around them. Items in orbit, even smaller ones, can reach incredible speeds. A fleck of paint from an old spacecraft pitted the windscreen of the shuttle Challenger in 1983, and Atlantis landed in September with a hole in one of its panels.

Other, less-conventional objects have previously been rendered space junk. American astronaut Edward White lost a baseball glove in 1965, and British astronaut Piers Sellers dropped a putty knife while taking a space walk this July.

Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin will be adding more junk today as he prepares to make the world's longest golf shot from outside the International Space Station. NASA calculations put the golf ball in orbit for three days before it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere, but some Russian scientists say the ball could stay in orbit for up to three years. If it were to hit the space station in that time -- an impossibility, according to experts -- it would do so with equal force to a 22 ton truck traveling at 111 miles per hour.

According to Stanford University anthropologist William Rathje, the first man-made object to leave Earth's solar system was the Pioneer 11, launched in 1974. The craft is currently, and will always be, drifting into space.

"How fitting that our first emissary to the stars is our trash," Rathje said.


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