Thank you for your email (shown below). I guess most people's thoughts are, "after we clean up the Super-Fund sites, eliminate nuclear weapons, stop war and aggression, and raise everyone's standard of living, then perhaps we should worry about space debris". It seems so far away to most people.
I guess they just don't understand what's happening up there. Russia especially, has left a radioactive legacy, dozens of nuclear reactors in relatively low Earth orbits (400 to 1000 year lifespans), some already leaking highly radioactive primary coolant, all susceptible to space debris themselves. If smashed to bits they would not be retrievable but right now, they could be either retrieved and brought to Earth for a more proper caretaking, or boosted out of Earth orbit toward the Sun for incineration there.
Our own military has sent up an unknown number of radioactive payloads, and still does, not nuclear reactors but Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators and Radioactive Heater Units. NASA also uses these devices, as a cover for the military use, no doubt.
But aside from the radioactive waste being launched into space, (and the cover-ups and lies that accompany that use), any object in space that's not being used for something is space debris. The U.S. military launched half a billion little needles one time, to see how they reflected on radar. Spent rocket stages, old satellites that have become inoperative or have simply been eclipsed by newer technology, even a lost glove, are now highly hazardous bullets threatening whoever ventures towards the heavens.
Some orbital areas are so trashed, "nobody goes there anymore". They are avoided like the plague. Some scientists have calculated that (especially if a few big pieces get smashed), it might already be capable of becoming a chain-reaction thing where all the big pieces of debris get pulverized and we have a dust cloud above us which we cannot venture into or through at all, and which actually not only blocks the sun somewhat (NOT a cure for global warming!!!), but also prevents the use of solar panels in space, so we can't benefit from that technology. Space debris makes the military "NEED" to use RTGs for electrical power, since solar panels would get destroyed by space debris earlier missions have left up there.
And if you ask Dr. Nick Johnson at NASA, their orbital debris expert (or apologist), all he seems to ever say is that they are taking a variety of steps to reduce the creation of new debris, like designing rocket fuel containers to more effectively burn all the fuel in them so they don't explode later. He'll also tell you that they are studying the size of the problem. Soon they might know exactly to five decimal places how much junk is up there, but they still can't track more than about 1% of the deadly pieces. That is, of the pieces large enough to, say, catastrophically damage the space shuttle or space station (anything about the size of a lentil bean or bigger), only about 1 in 100 pieces is large enough to be seen by NASA and military radar systems -- or about 10,000 pieces of the 1,000,000 or so that could damage a space flight.
I've noticed how few reports about the problem ever mention that only about 1% of the stuff that can damage rockets is trackable. They always mention that nearly 10,000 pieces are tracked, but ignore that that is only 1% of the lentil-bean-or-larger material! I hope you'll do better in your report!
If you want to call and ask any additional questions, I'd love to talk more about this issue which I seem to be practically a lone activist on, so please feel free to call at your convenience, at any of the numbers listed below. I will be in and out most of today, tomorrow, and Sunday. Today I'll should be in until about 5 pm your time.
Thank you again for your inquiry. It sure would be nice if this issue got some more attention!
At 10:00 AM 3/16/01 -0500, you wrote:
Dear Mr. Hoffman,
I'm a writer pursuing a story about space debris. I wonder if you might
share your insights. Please contact me at your convenience. Thanks.
Wilmington (Del.) News Journal