Earth will have Saturn-like rings ‘made of space junk,’ scientists say – New York Post

For a planet that struggles with pollution on land, in the water and in the air, Earth’s orbit, too, is on track to become the junkyard of our solar system.

University of Utah researcher Jake Abbott said that “Earth is on course to have its own rings.”

“They’ll just be made of space junk,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month.

Four of our solar neighbors — Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus — boast some type of rings, the second of which is the most spectacular example of all, of course. The signature broad rings adorning Saturn are made of ice and rock that have been locked in the planet’s orbit. The same generally goes for the rest, with varying compositions of ice and cosmic dust.

But not Earth’s. Ours is wholly human-made — from discontinued and damaged satellites, rockets and other space-based collisions.

NASA space junk illustration
NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office is tracking some 27,000 hunks of threatening space junk.
NASA

The Department of Defense as well as NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office keeps detailed records of objects that circle Earth. There is currently an estimated 23,000 pieces of orbital debris, NASA’s term for Earth’s highway of space trash, that are larger than a softball, and up to hundreds of millions of more bits at smaller sizes. At speeds of 17,500 mph, those larger chunks pose a serious threat to aerospace travel and research.

Utah researchers are busy studying safe and economic ways to clean up our orbit. Abbott cautioned against proposed methods designed to stop space junk in its tracks.

the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking
Seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station were forced to seek shelter in their docked capsules when Russia exploded one of their own satellites in November 2021.
NASA via AP, File

“Most of that junk is spinning,” Abbott said. “Reach out to stop it with a robotic arm, you’ll break the arm and create more debris.”

Between 200 and 400 pieces are thought to fall back to Earth annually, although most of them burn up in the atmosphere before they can make an impact.

But as the commercial space race ramps up, observers are sure to see more objects dotting the night sky, and, subsequently, the potential for more junk. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, as well as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, have each announced plans to launch tens of thousands of new satellites in the coming years.

Just last week, Russia’s space agency shot down one of its inert satellites without warning, exploding a nearly 2.5-ton satellite into bits and sending the crew on the International Space Station in a panic over the potential impact from its blast.

The key to Abbott’s research, published last month in the journal Nature, is in magnetism. “We’ve basically created the world’s first tractor beam,” the mechanical engineering professor told Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s just a question of engineering now. Building and launching it.”

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Earth will have Saturn-like rings ‘made of space junk,’ scientists say – New York Post

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