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A Space Junk Odyssey

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Published: 2 Feb 2010

Humans are getting good at reaching outer space. But, like on Earth, we’re lousy at cleaning up after ourselves up there. Law professor Ram Jakhu is helping tame this growing otherworldly problem—before it’s too late.

On a mantel in his Peel St. office in Montreal, McGill Faculty of Law associate professor Ram Jakhu keeps a model of an INSAT-2 satellite. The INSAT-2 series, first launched in 1992, played a large role in developing India’s telecommunications capacity. But satellites, even historic ones, eventually outlive their usefulness. In the case of INSAT-2, the 2,550-kilogram satellite was good for about 12 years. After that, it became 2,550 kilos of junk orbiting the Earth. It wasn’t alone.

As the associate director of McGill’s Centre for Research of Air and Space Law (CRASL), Ram Jakhu considers the legal ramifications of space junk, the man-made detritus that’s left to float through the cosmos. And there’s a lot of junk to consider. The United States Space Surveillance Network has catalogued over 17,000 drifting objects— mostly discarded pieces of spacecraft, rockets and satellites—that exceed 10 centimetres in diameter, and there are an estimated 300,000 other objects that are between one and 10 centimetres in diameter. (There are also likely millions of even smaller pieces.) Orbiting at speeds ranging from 10,800 kilometres to 27,400 kilometres per hour, even a small chunk of old rocket can do serious damage to a shuttle or communications satellite, or kill an astronaut engaged in extravehicular activity. Even though it’s designed to burn up in re-entry, such junk, along with whatever residual fuel or radioactive material it may contain, can also sometimes fall to Earth, contaminating areas in which it lands.

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