Space Junk 3D (2012) - full transcript

Space Junk is a visually explosive journey of discovery that weighs the solutions aimed at restoring our planet's orbits.

...a small piece of
space--they call it junk

--had been causing a big
headache for NASA scientists...

Houston is monitoring a piece
of debris that could possibly

pass in front of the International
Space Station's orbit...

...talking about this
6" square piece...

...of it colliding with the
International Space Station

is within the red threshold.
There is not enough time... seek shelter...

...travelling at
17,000 miles an hour...

...if it were to hit
the space station...

...could do a little damage...

...could really cause
a very bad day...

...6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0...

The eagle has landed.

It's one small step for man,
one giant leap for mankind.

After half a century
of space exploration,

we're now suddenly faced with what's
long been a staple of science fiction:

an orbiting junkyard of
cast-off space debris.

The American southwest is
a breathtaking testament

to the forces of nature
that have shaped our world.

OK. We're comin' up on it now.

This is Meteor Crater
near Winslow, Arizona.

It is considered the world's best
preserved meteorite impact site.

Meet Donald Kessler, retired
head of orbital debris at NASA.

His guide, Eduardo Gonzales...

A 16-year veteran of Meteor
Crater and a man who shares

Kessler's passion for the
wonders of the universe...

So Don, how was your ride up here?

Oh, it was wonderful! It
was like landing on the moon!

But we're on earth! Can you believe it?

At Meteor Crater, they
always find common ground.

...result of a collision from the Asteroid
Belt that happened 50,000 years ago...

For Don, this place
brings some of the science

of orbital debris to life in a big way.

Follow me and I'll show you.

Nearly 1 mile across, 2.5
miles around and 550 feet deep,

Meteor Crater is the astounding
outcome of a nickel-iron meteorite

hitting earth with the energy of
more than 20 million tonnes of TNT,

creating all of this in just 10 seconds.

The fact that this meteorite came
from outer space makes me awestruck.

We're just seeing a
small slice of the process

that really made the Earth what it is.

It's a sobering reminder
of the incredible collisions

that occur throughout the universe,

from meteor impacts like this one
to the collision of entire galaxies.

Throughout time, space collisions have
occurred as part of the natural process.

Scientist believe that
billions of years from now,

our own Milky Way galaxy and its closest
neighbour, the Andromeda Spiral Galaxy,

could collide and merge to create
a new giant elliptical galaxy,

spewing stars along the way.


Collisions like this have
forever played a major role

in the creation and formation
of our own Solar System.

It's this natural process that
concerned Kessler over 30 years ago.

Kessler's question was: If all of these
collisions are occurring in nature,

what's going to happen to all of the
man-made objects we're putting into space?

At the time, Kessler's thinking
did not align with popular beliefs.

Ever since human ventured into space,
we've embraced the Big Sky Theory.

The theory holds that
the space is so big,

you could launch anything into orbit and
it wouldn't collide with anything else.

But it turns out that space
is smaller than we thought.

Low-Earth Orbit, or LEO as it's called,
is home to the International Space Station,

the Hubble Telescope and
most of our satellites.

In Middle-Earth Orbit, we find
GPS and weather satellites.

Geosynchronous Orbit, or GEO, the
orbit farthest away from the Earth,

is crowded with
communication satellites.

With so many objects careening
through the same altitudes,

it's not hard to imagine that
some may eventually collide.

Known as the Kessler
Syndrome, Kessler's prediction

stated that random collisions
between man-made objects

would create smaller debris that would
become increasingly hazardous to spacecraft.

The resulting chain reaction would create
exponentially expanding clouds of debris.

Even if we don't launch
anything else into space,

this orbiting belt of debris could very
well alter space exploration as we know it.

Is it possible that we're
now at the tipping point

of this cascading, uncontrollable event?

Alarmingly, in the three decades
since Donald Kessler's prediction,

the amount of debris in
Low-Earth and Geosynchronous Orbit

has grown at a rapidly expanding rate
into a minefield of discarded trash.

In the past, most of the small particles
came from the bigger objects falling apart.

In the future, and we're
reaching that threshold right now,

the objects are gonna come random
collisions, just like in the Solar System.

Just like our one Sun-spoiled
ecosystems here on earth,

our orbits are becoming
increasingly endangered.

From space exploration to
satellite communication,

humans have developed a
profound connection to space.

What would happen if it
were all to suddenly go away?

Launched in 1993, Cosmos
2251 provides communications

for Russian military and intelligence
forces from Low-Earth Orbit.

Satellites like this are part of
what's called "a constellation,"

a grouping of satellites spread
out in a set of orbital rings

providing an uninterrupted
stream of communications,

with each rotation in
as little as 90 minutes.

These and thousands of other
satellites orbit earth 16 times per day.

The gravitational pull from
nearby earth is so strong,

every satellite has to travel
at hyper-velocity speeds,

upwards of 17,000 miles per hour.

The pull of gravity, balanced
against the satellite's velocity,

creates this curved orbital path.

Satellites and their around-the-clock
services are a fact of modern life.

LEO is ideal for communication
satellites like Iridium 33,

which provides voice and data
coverage for cellular telephones.

With satellites like Cosmos and Iridium
constantly crossing each other's paths,

they often experience what satellite
operators refer to as "close approaches",

two satellites passing within just
a few short miles of one another.

Amazingly, that can happen
around 150 times a day.

Space is indeed a busy place.

Our planet's need for communication
has transformed what was once called

"the Final Frontier" into something far
less romantic and far more congested.

Just 50 years ago, the
boundary seemed limitless.

From a ground station nestled in
the mountains of Andover, Maine,

a signal is sent to
a speeding satellite.

An historic feat, that
could reshape man's future...

That satellite of course is the Telstar.

170 pounds of messages and computer data
all can be handled by the orbiting device.

Ironically, this technological
wonder dies one year later,

becoming as what is known
as a "zombie satellite."

Telstar began the
revolution in communications

that now features a fleet of
satellites in the region we know as GEO.

These satellites form a densely
populated belt that circles the Equator.

They facilitate most of
the world's television,

military and internet communications.

Because its orbit
mirrors earth's rotation,

a satellite will appear to hover
over a point on the earth's surface.

The result? 24/7 continuous
coverage from air to sea, to land...

Think about this:

Here on earth when you download
a music file, host a video,

tweet, friend someone, or watch
your favourite cable TV show,

it's coming from GEO.

Our busy lives on earth have
become deeply connected to space.

Just like a coral reef or a rainforest,
GEO is a limited natural resource.

There's only one spot in GEO for
each satellite to maintain position.

Satellites may drift due
to gravitational pull from

both the Sun and the Moon,
slowly changing their orbits.

Enter station keepers,
traffic cops of space...

They send signals commanding
satellites to adjust orbits,

by firing up the onboard thrusters,

keeping them out of harm's way.

But no amount of station keeping
would have altered the course

of what was to become the largest
debris-generating event on record.

In early 2007, an anti-satellite
missile test took place in LEO.

Its target? A dead weather satellite...

In less than 24 hours, the
debris encircled the earth,

hovering at the original impact
altitude of over 500 miles,

high enough so that the pieces
won't come down, but low enough

so that they have the potential to affect
almost all other objects in Low-Earth Orbit,

including the
International Space Station.

Today, as the debris cloud keeps
growing, so does our understanding of it.

The majority of debris
from this one event

will remain a hazard in our
skies for centuries to come.

This visualisation shows the
formation of one of the first galaxies,

massive stars filling
the universe with light,

beginning when it was
300 million years old,

and continuing up to its present
age of 13.7 billion years.

It's an awe-inspiring look at
the lifespan of the universe,

with galaxies forming,
and naturally colliding...

Ultimately spinning the massive
thread-like structure of the cosmic web...

At Lowell Observatory, Don Kessler is guided
by Kim Herman, post-doctoral associate.

Arizona's known for
its observatories, and

fortunately very close to
Meteor Crater is Lowell.

All my life I've been
interested in astronomy.

I've visited several
observatories that were designed

for the purpose of looking at
satellites, but never one with astronomy.

Here astronomers are
well-connected to the stars.

Bordered by a ponderosa
pine forest 8,000 feet up,

elevation and absolute
isolation create a pristine sky

for professional and amateur
astronomers of all ages.

The night sky here opens up infinite
possibilities for the naked eye.

Here the sky is so clear
and so dark that we don't

even need telescopes to see
what's going on in the sky.

Eyum is using her smartphone to
stargaze and know what she's looking at.

And over there Saturn
should be coming out.

When I think about Saturn's
beautiful rings, I think of collisions

in space and what earth could look
like millions of years from now.

Overtime, collisions would create more
debris and in turn even more collisions.

Gradually, the debris would shrink in
size and speeds would slow until finally

the Earth would be surrounded
by stable, Saturn-like rings.

When I look at the night sky the
first thing I notice is stars.

The beauty of the
universe is striking to me.

The next thing I'll notice is meteors.

If I see a meteor I feel
like I'm lucky, because that

also reminds me of these
particles passing through space.

Then I may notice something
flickering and moving

and realise that I'm looking at
a satellite orbiting the Earth.

Those satellites are there
because we put them there.

And I may see another one,
travelling in the opposite direction.

It could collide with the
first one; their paths do cross.

An astronaut was asked this question:

When you're in orbit and see these
things in space, does that worry you?

His answer was: I worry
more about what I don't see.

Our belief that what goes up
must come down isn't always true.

It's estimated that LEO contains
6000 tonnes of space junk,

and GEO is home to 400 dead satellites,
parked into a higher graveyard orbit,

where they will remain
for hundreds of years.

That's a whole lot of junk.

So what exactly is out there?

Over the last 50 years, we've launched
several thousand objects into space.

Yet there are only around 1000 spacecraft
that are operational at this time.

What may surprise many people is that

once an object stops
functioning, we leave it in orbit.

Every single one of these non-operational
spacecraft is a potential source of debris.

In fact, most spacecraft that
are launched into the orbit

actually leave a trail
of debris in the process.

Upper-stage rocket bodies
weighing several tonnes

make up a good portion of junk in space. do mission-related objects
like cast-off bolts, or o-rings...

The rest, of miscellaneous fragments,
exploded rockets, left-over fuel...

And the list goes on...

But even with this
incredible amount of debris,

few people were taking the
notion of space junk seriously

until the morning of February 10, 2009.

Earlier that day, a report
was issued predicting that

Iridium 33 would encounter a
close approach of just 1900 feet

with another spacecraft.

It's Cosmos 2251, travelling
at the same speed as Iridium.

Amazingly, this collision
alert wasn't even among the top

predicted for any of the Iridium
satellites for the coming week.

But at 4:56 PM, the time predicted for
the close approach, Iridium 33 went silent.

Two satellites that had simultaneously
circled the planet for a dozen years

had collided.

Cosmos, as it turned
out, was a dead satellite,

ceasing to function in 1995, just
two years after it was launched.

Now more than a 100,000 pieces from
this collision cloud Low-Earth Orbit.

The Iridium-Cosmos collision
was very much a game changer.

There were those who thought of
space in terms of a Big Sky Theory,

that it was limitless and we didn't
need to worry about ever crowding it.

It became very obvious that that wasn't
true and people began to consider:

What do we need to do to keep
this from happening again?

Far from space, deep in the desert
near White Sands, New Mexico,

sits the remote
hyper-velocity test laboratory,

where engineers are providing
solutions required to advance

space travel in the face of
these gathering obstacles.

Scientists analyze what we can only
imagine: hyper-velocity impacts,

collisions between objects travelling
at speeds of up to 15,000 miles per hour.

These scientific visualisations show
a fragment no bigger than a beebee...

...blasting through an aluminium plate,
typically used to protect spacecraft.

Even the smallest of impacts scatter
debris, delivering wide-spread damage.

Whether it's a circuit board or a wayward
bolt, or even the tiniest chip of paint,

orbital debris travelling at these
speeds poses a very real threat.

Because of this, the International
Space Station features extra shielding,

as shown in red, over the
areas most likely to be hit.

To further protect the
ISS, its orbit is monitored

within what is referred
to as a "pizza box,"

creating a safe zone on all sides
to help keep it out of harm's way.

That's the job of the US
Space Surveillance Network,

where they detect and
catalogue man-made objects.

Utilising a vast array
of RADARs and sensors,

we're able to track thousands of pieces
of space junk larger than a softball.

Some of them, like rocket boosters,
are the size of a school bus.

But what's far more troubling is
all the debris that can't be tracked.

Debris the size of marbles,
among them waste from

rocket propellant and
fragments from collisions,

is capable of inflicting lethal damage.

Millions of particles the size
of darts are far beyond detection.

But the craters they produce on
spacecraft are well-documented.

Most importantly, the network
charts the orbital paths of the

catalogued debris and issues
collision alerts to station keepers.

So where do we go from here?

Forces of nature and natural collisions
will continue to shape our universe.

But man-made collisions?

Perhaps those we can
do something about...

The good news is that people have
begun to come up with new ideas to

bring back the pristine environment
that we would like space to be.

Scientists and engineers are
developing breakthrough innovations to

help us begin cleaning
up space someday soon.

The question is: How do we
catch up to and capture

debris tumbling through Low-Earth
Orbit at thousands of miles an hour?

And then, how do we slow it down,

so that it falls out of orbit
and burns up in the atmosphere?

One fascinating concept involves
the use of electro-dynamic tether,

which would deal with the
spacecraft by generating drag,

through interactions between currents in
the tether and the Earth's magnetic field.

This increased drag would lower
the spacecraft out of orbit

until it re-enters the
atmosphere and burns up.

We may also be able to
capture debris with a net.

Japan's Space Agency has been working
with a fishing net manufacturer

to look at creating a "space
fishing net," which, like the tether,

could be powered using
the earth's magnetosphere.

Imagine that...

A centuries-old fishing
tool might just become

a brand-new tool for cleaning up space.

Lasers could one day sweep
space, striking smaller objects,

slowing them down and causing
them to tumble into the atmosphere.

Solar sails could someday be
part of the satellites we launch,

helping them to de-orbit once
their work in space is done.

Space-faring nations are now working
to develop sustainable methods to

explore space and new technology to
reclaim what has been left in orbit.

As we continue to launch our
dreams into space, what if one day

objects in space were located
and captured by a garbage vehicle?

The vehicle could then dock
at a recycling facility,

a place where space debris could be
stored and recycled to create new parts.


Aluminium and fuel from
centuries old upper-stage rockets

recovered and poured into an
industrial outer space post...

Industrialising space is never
and issue of science fiction.

It's more of a question
of do we want to do it and

when do we have the infrastructure
established so that we can do it.

It's work we will do in the
future as move out into space.

Space-based recycling could
someday become a reality,

launching a new, greener
era of space exploration.

For as long as humans
have walked the planet,

we've looked at the heavens to help
us define our role in the universe.

The celestial bodies in our skies
and the constellations they form

have forever shaped our
notions of time and place.

Today, constellations of our
own making fill the night skies

as we continue to push skyward, relying
on what the universe has taught us.

Where would we be, if we
couldn't consult the stars?

Growing up, it was my fantasy
that I would get to see humanity

spread off of the Earth and
throughout the Solar System.

So do I think this snowballing
event will actually happen?

I can't imagine after
dreaming and working toward

space flight and after 50
years of having achieved it,

that we would ever cut
ourselves off from space.

That does against everything that
humanity has ever strived for.

My legacy will probably always include
being knows as the father of "space junk."

What I hope that means is
that we continue to maintain

access to space and learn more
about life and the environment.