Now that I have your attention. Obviously a screwdriver is not going to keep us out of space. But enough screwdrivers might.
It’s called Kessler syndrome, and it happens when orbital debris reaches a critical point. A runaway chain reaction of collisions could then occur, destroying many of the satellites in orbit and making it prohibitively expensive to leave the planet.
What Causes the Problem?
The problem is space debris. Which famously includes at least one dropped screwdriver. Dead satellites, tools dropped by astronauts, spacecraft damaged or destroyed by collision with small meteors… orbital debris is anything in orbit that we can’t control.
And a lot of it can’t be tracked because it’s too small. The amount of it is, indeed, growing. It’s becoming more and more of a problem. We’re basically littering near earth orbit. And it’s hard to pick up after people. This is then a danger to live satellites, astronauts in orbit, etc.
Oh, and on top of that, a large enough piece of debris could re-enter more or less intact and re-enact the start of Dead Like Me (which I’m sure almost nobody else remembers).
In other words, even if we don’t end up trapping ourselves on our own planet, orbital debris needs to be dealt with.
What Solutions are Being Put Forward?
Fortunately, people are well aware that space litter is a problem. Time to send up the garbage man. Or more likely the garbage robot. Here are some solutions that have been proposed:
- Fishing for space litter. Specifically the NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite proved the concept of using a deployed net to capture and retrieve debris. The debris could then be brought to the ISS if it’s close enough, de-orbited, or collected by a, yeah, space garbage truck. Other methods being explored are harpoons, robotic arms and tentacles. I personally think the nets are better, but I like tentacles.
- Intentional de-orbiting. One thing already being done to reduce orbital debris is intentionally de-orbiting satellites at the end of their operational life. The satellites are aimed so they burn up in the atmosphere. But what about non-responsive satellites. One thought is to send a drone up that grabs the satellites and tugs them back down to earth. Another is to use a solar sail or an electromagnetic tether (essentially a tractor beam) to slow the orbit of debris so it burns up.
- Necropolis. Yeah, because British people come up with the best mission names. The system would send out a tug spacecraft that would then park satellites in a safe graveyard orbit. The advantage of this would be that then we’d have a space junkyard that could be combed for usable parts. That’s not a joke.
So, let’s send up the space garbage men. Or rather the space garbage robots. If we don’t, then we’re going to keep having problems and collisions. And the screwdrivers will keep us out of orbit.