We have reached the moon and so has plastic!

Development of ballistic missiles by Germany during World War II brought in the concept of launching vehicles in the space which also fueled a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Whereas, in the 20th century space exploration became a reality enabling the development of rockets powerful enough to overcome the force of gravity. Since then humans have launched numerous rockets and several satellites into space orbit, many of which are still out there. Figure below illustrates some of the major milestones achieved in space exploration.

Plastic materials are an integral part of the developments that occurred in spaceflight, letting astronauts have a better view of their surroundings, have easy oxygen breathing and have a comfortable travel around the earth’s space, or any other planet. Some of the parts which are made of polymer are:

  • Puffy space suits and helmets equipped with shiny visors
  • The open cell polyurethane-silicon memory foam for spacecraft seating
  • Plastic coated scratch resistant lenses
  • Plastic seals, flooring and instrumentation panels
  • Duct for the Environmental Control System
  • Microsatellite solar panel arrays
  • Camera systems
  • Recently, with Stratasys’ Fortus 450mc 3D printer INFN utilized an ULTEM 9085 polymer material to produce a telescope that could meet the stringent certification requirements of the aerospace industry which will also be able to withstand the mechanical stress and vibrations during the launch of the Soyuz rocket

The space is filled up with immeasurable junk pieces and is getting even more polluted with every endeavor of space exploration.

  • Quantity: > 6 Tons
  • Details of the pieces:
    • > 128 millions of size ≤ 1mm
    • > 34,000 of size ≥ 10 cm

These small pieces of debris should not be underestimated as they can potentially destroy multi-million dollar satellites due to high-velocity explosions.

A scientist from NASA named S. Thuy Nguyen-Onstott, has written an impressive poetry on it:

Comparing the debris to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Directorate General of Defense Industry and Space at the European Commission had called this space junk as a ‘drifting island of plastic‘!

What are these debris?

  • Parts of rockets that detach when launched
  • Chipped spacecraft paint
  • Non-functional satellites (as of 2018 estimate by NASA there as more than 500,000 defunct satellites in space)
  • Discarded rocket boosters
  • Leftovers from past explosions
  • Nuts, bolts, and even screwdrivers
  • Garbage bags
  • Lens cap

Recent activities (to name a few) that have contributed to this ‘Drifting Island of Plastic’ are:

  • 1985: Destruction of USA P78-1 solar research satellite during the anti-satellite missile test of USA ASM-135
  • 2007: Destruction of the Fengyun-1C weather satellite during China’s anti-satellite missile test
  • 2009: Collision of US built functional commercial satellite Iridium 33 with the out of service Russian Strela Military communications satellite Kosmos-2251
  • 2013: Collision of Russian BLITS nano-satellite with the debris of Fengyun FY-1C satellite.
  • 2019: India’s successful testing of an anti-satellite missile

Some of the Scientists performed a computer simulation to estimate debris that would be contributed to space in next 200 years:

  • Debris larger than about 8 inches will increase by 1.5 times
  • Debris between 4 inches and 8 inches would multiply 3.2 times
  • Debris less than 4 inches will grow by a factor of 13 to 20

Some of the steps undertaken to overcome the problem of space debris:

  • In early 2000s the international community issued guidelines to equip satellites with debris mitigation systems
  • Guidelines were also established for low-flying satellites that they should leave the region they operate in within 25 years and slowly orbit back to Earth until they reach the atmosphere and self-destroy
  • Space agencies are developing technologies to approach the defunct satellites and their shards aided by computer vision technology, then capturing them with harpoons, nets or robotic arms, finally getting them back to Earth in one piece or should self-destroy when reaching the atmosphere
  • SpaceX, in 2018, launched Falcon 9 rocket that carried an experimental “space sweeper” to clean up space debris
  • JAXA, Japan’s space agency, is testing an electronic space whip which would be stretching to about six football fields long, when deployed would knock debris out of the orbit and sending it to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere

You will be astonished to know what all things humans have left on the Moon!

  • Three Moon buggies from Apollo 15, 16 and 17
  • 54 uncrewed probes that have crashed or landed on the Moon
  • The first spacecraft and probes left on the Moon by different countries:
    • 1959: Luna 2 (USSR)
    • 1969: Ranger 4 (USA)
    • 1993: Hiten (Japan)
    • 2006: SMART-1 (Europe)
    • 2008: Chandrayaan-1 (India)
    • 2009: Chang’e-1 (China)
    • 2019: Beresheet (Israel)

Thus, it can be observed that space debris is a responsibility of each spacefaring country, as it is an international challenge for any future space exploration missions.

However, some of the points to be discussed further could be:

  • Are we creating more problems for our existence by trying to search for life’s existence in outer space?
  • Can there be self-vanishing space-crafts which would self-destruct after some time without creating debris?
  • How can the space cleaning mission be made more economical?
  • What role is India playing in contributing to space cleaning?
  • Are there any start-ups working in this field and what is their scope of growth?

Dear Readers, do go through the above literature and let me know your viewpoints in the Comments section.

Thanks for reading!

I put up a new post whenever I come across an interesting topic, so follow my blog and stay updated about the developments in the polymer industry.

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_collision
  2. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/10/20/world/science-health-world/space-garbage-earth-plastics/
  3. https://www.cnet.com/features/space-has-become-a-junkyard-and-its-getting-worse/
  4. https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/the-space-is-filled-with-junk-but-thats-not-what-elon-musk-is-telling-you-3288620.html
  5. https://aerospace.org/article/brief-history-space-exploration
  6. https://theprint.in/environment/how-solutions-found-for-space-garbage-could-help-fix-the-plastic-problem-on-earth/526897/
  7. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/hq/library/find/bibliographies/space_debris
  8. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/reference/space-junk/
  9. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-space-junk-and-why-is-it-a-problem.html
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_satellite_collision
  11. https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=12034
  12. https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=19341
  13. https://www.craftechind.com/plastic-materials-advanced-space-exploration/
  14. https://www.tctmagazine.com/additive-manufacturing-3d-printing-news/made-in-space-peipc-polymer-international-space-station/#:~:text=Made%20In%20Space%20already%20uses,incorporated%20into%20its%20AMF%20processes.
  15. https://www.tctmagazine.com/additive-manufacturing-3d-printing-news/3d-printing-international-space-station-telescope/

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