AAS 200th meeting, Albuquerque, NM, June 2002
Session 66. Space Debris: Natural, Cosmic and Manmade
Topical Session Oral, Wednesday, June 5, 2002, 2:30-4:00pm, 4:15-6:00pm, San Miguel

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[66.04] Orbital Debris and NASA's Measurement Program

J. L. Africano (The Boeing Co.), E. G. Stansbery (NASA/JSC)

Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the number of manmade objects in orbit around the Earth has dramatically increased. The United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN) tracks and maintains orbits on over nine thousand objects down to a limiting diameter of about ten centimeters. Unfortunately, active spacecraft are only a small percentage (~ 7%) of this population. The rest of the population is orbital debris or ``space junk" consisting of expended rocket bodies, dead payloads, bits and pieces from satellite launches, and fragments from satellite breakups. The number of these smaller orbital debris objects increases rapidly with decreasing size. It is estimated that there are at least 130,000 orbital debris objects between one and ten centimeters in diameter. Most objects smaller than 10 centimeters go untracked!

As the orbital debris population grows, the risk to other orbiting objects, most importantly manned space vehicles, of a collision with a piece of debris also grows. The kinetic energy of a solid 1 cm aluminum sphere traveling at an orbital velocity of 10 km/sec is equivalent to a 400 lb. safe traveling at 60 mph. Fortunately, the volume of space in which the orbiting population resides is large, collisions are infrequent, but they do occur. The Space Shuttle often returns to earth with its windshield pocked with small pits or craters caused by collisions with very small, sub-millimeter-size pieces of debris (paint flakes, particles from solid rocket exhaust, etc.), and micrometeoroids.

To get a more complete picture of the orbital-debris environment, NASA has been using both radar and optical techniques to monitor the orbital debris environment. This paper gives an overview of the orbital debris environment and NASA's measurement program.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 34
© 2002. The American Astronomical Soceity.