Astronaut - we need to clean up space
German astronaut Thomas Reiter has warned that a space clear-up is needed to protect the satellites upon which many aspects of modern life depend.
Reiter, 54, said that Germany will have control of nearly 20 satellites in Earth’s orbit, largely for communication purposes – but that they are endangered by the 6,000 tonnes of rubbish floating around with them.
Speaking to Wednesday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Reiter, whose 350 days in space is a European record, said action was needed.
“Observation satellites have become indispensable for research and give us insights into weather and climate and without them, telecommunications and navigational systems would be unthinkable,” he said.
But as the country increasingly relies on these high-altitude helpers, concern increases about the damage that can be done to them by the rubbish surrounding them.
“Satellites orbiting at 800 to 1,000 kilometres run the highest risk of crashing into space debris, which is at its most concentrated at that level,” Reiter said.
Satellites are increasingly having be steered around giant chunks of scrap metal, while even fragments weighing a few grams can cause enormous damage, he added.
Ideas on how to tackle space trash, such as literally, a vacuum cleaner, are floating round the European Space Agency, where Reiter works.
“A special vehicle could dock onto large chunks of scrap and drag them into a higher orbit,” he said.
But of course, it would be best to prevent the rubbish being dumped there in the first place.
One way to do this would be by “making sure a satellite has enough fuel so that at the end of its life it can come back down to Earth – thus largely burning up while hurtling through the atmosphere,” he said.
Reiter also told the paper that exploring the moon was on back on the radar and that sending machines to look at its southern polar region was planned for 2018 – a project that the ESA would like to cooperate with Russia on.
“Russia is planning a few trips to the moon and by the end of the decade wants to collect samples from the moon's polar regions,” said Frankfurt-born Reiter.
So far though, no European astronaut has been to the moon and he explained that even getting Europeans into space at all was tricky. He added that “in two years' time another German will be flying to a manned space station.”