The U.S. Air Force plans to set aside at least $500 million next year so the military branch can help track space junk that currently orbits Earth.
Specifically, officials plan to focus on tracking space junk that could possibly threaten communication and spy satellites that are above Earth. NASA already monitors thousands of pieces of space debris that could impact the International Space Station (ISS) and manned shuttles in orbit.
The Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network already is watching 19,000 objects that are at least four inches in size, although more than 300,000 total objects at least a half-inch in diameter now circles Earth.
Specifically, experts are worried about micrometeroid or orbital debris (MMOD) that could impact shuttles, which make space travel even more dangerous.
The Air Force plans to launch a Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite next month, after it was successfully completed in April, along with creating a new joint center facility dedicated specifically to space junk.
“The threat posed by orbital debris to the reliable operation of space systems will continue to grow unless the sources of space debris are brought under control,” NASA chief orbital debris specialist Nicholas Johnson said earlier in the spring.
NASA recently launched shuttle Atlantis towards the Hubble Space Telescope, a dangerous mission with a 1 in 221 chance that an MMOD could hit the shuttle. In case that happens, the U.S. space agency will have shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad ready to launch to Hubble. During a routine inspection of the shuttle Atlantis heat shield, numerous small dings and dents were found by astronauts aboard the shuttle.
Although they’re better able to track space junk, space experts are unsure how to actually dispose of the rocks and debris from former satellites. Until a viable solution is selected, experts will only just be able to watch the debris and try and eliminate the possibility of impact.
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