Part of Apollo 12 rocket engine returns after decades in deep space

first_imgIn much of science fiction, space is visualized as the ultimate dumping ground. It’s big enough, certainly, and so far as we can currently tell there’s no indigenous wildlife to be disturbed by our wastefulness. When you no longer want to deal with something and want it truly gone for good, set it off into space, and forget all about it.It turns out, of course, that things aren’t so simple as that. Without some serious planning, even the strongest of pushes can leave a would-be interstellar traveler trapped as a satellite of any of a dozen celestial bodies in our solar system. It could fall down those gravity wells and crash, or have its path deformed into a weird, loopy mess.That’s what’s happened with a space-faring object called J002E3, which was originally thought to be an asteroid but which is now believed to be a piece of a rocket engine on Apollo 12. For 31 years this piece of debris circled the sun, but in the early 2000’s it wandered a little too close to the Earth and entered the planet’s Hill Sphere. This hypothetical sphere of space is the area in which the Earth is the strongest source of gravitational force, not the Sun. When this happened, J002E3 spend a few years circling the Earth in a remarkably geometric pattern, as can be seen in the animation (source).The sheer number of satellites in orbit is staggering.Notice how close this piece of debris came to the Earth itself — close enough to start threatening some of the satellites disbursed around our planet. Kessler Syndrome refers to a doomsday scenario in which the density of satellites in low Earth orbit becomes so high than any slight collision would start a chain-reaction of debris-scatting events that could lead to wide-spread destruction of worldwide communications. Some think we’ve already passed that critical density.For that reason, satellites are tracked rigorously. It’s a big enough job to just to make sure that so many thousands of orbits never intersect without having to worry about bits of the Moon landings coming in to make things even more complicated.Tracking systems did find the object before it got particularly close, however, and watched its path all throughout its time spent near. We’re beginning to accelerate the pace of our forays into space, however, and thinking once again about a manned mission to another globe. The problem of sloughed technology is only going to become more pressing, and quickly.last_img

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