Zapping A Cosmic Rubble Pile

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Illustration of ground based lasers helping move dangerous space junk away from satellites and spacecraft to avoid disastrous collisions.

Have a guess how much space junk is floating around up there? That’s right, too much to count and we put it all there, over the past 40 years by launching more than 10,000 satellites, the majority of which are still in orbit. We’re only now beginning to reap the bounty we’ve sown, so to speak.

Rocket booster casings, dead satellites – you name it and it’s there a cosmic rubble pile posing a problem for astronauts and space tourists for the next 30 years! But, there is hope on the horizon. It may sound like science fiction but an Australian team is working on a project to zap orbital debris with lasers from Earth to reduce the growing amount of space junk that threatens to knock out our satellites.

Scientists believe there are more than 300,000 pieces of debris in space, made up of everything from tiny screws and bolts to large parts of rockets, mostly moving in low orbits around Earth at tremendous speed.Australia now has a contract with NASA to track and map space junk with a telescope equipped with an infrared laser at Mount Stromlo Observatory.

The ultimate aim is to zap pieces of junk so they burn up harmlessly as they fall through the upper atmosphere. There’s no risk of missing and hitting a working satellite, we can target them precisely.Are you starting to get reminders of what you saw depicted in the 2013 Hollywood movie Gravity? Stunning movie though!

Venus and Jupiter invade our early morning skies putting on a nice sky show this week.
Venus and Jupiter invade our early morning skies putting on a nice sky show this week. They join up with a crescent moon on Sunday to complete the picture.

Talking about stunning views, check out what’s hanging low in the eastern sky just before dawn. Those two bright ‘stars’ you see are actually the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter close together. Earlier this week they almost seemed to touch and still remain an absolutely spectacular sight this weekend! Jupiter is the one above with Venus below.

To top it off, the crescent Moon joins the group on the mornings of August 23rd and 24th, passing close enough to make it a magic triplet. Photo op! Grab a mug of tea or coffee, rug and head out into the backyard. You won’t be disappointed!

Crazy as it sounds, astronomy can actually save lives when it comes to planetary ‘conjunctions’ like this. A similar pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the dusk sky last year nearly sparked an international incident, when Indian Army sentries along the Himalayan border with China mistook the pair for Chinese spy drones. Luckily, Indian astronomers identified the conjunction before shots were exchanged. Whew!

We are under constant bombardment from space, and the Earth is getting heavier. We accumulate on average 20-40 tons of meteorites and spacey junk per day! In a year, it’s enough cosmic junk to fill a six story office building.

You can demonstrate this for yourself. If you put a big plastic sheet or a white sheet on your grass in the garden on a nice day, leave it for a few hours and then run a magnet over it. You can often find specks have just fallen down from outer space and landed on your magnet.

Hey, have you ever wondered how many people have ever lived on Earth? The ‘Population Reference Bureau’ recently took a stab at an answer and came up with 108 billion. Which means about 6.5% of the people who have ever lived are alive today. Now you know why the supermarket queues are getting longer OK!

Hey, want a really cool free astronomy app for your smart phone? Download one I’ve had on my phone for years called Pocket Universe. It’s got something for everyone from people mildly curious about the night sky to the dedicated amateur astronomer. Visit Dave’s website for a free 323 page e-book ‘The Complete Idiots Guide To Astronomy.’

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