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EDITORIAL: Pollution has gone orbital

Staff report
In this view from Playalinda Beach at Canaveral National Seashore, visitors watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying 60 Starlink satellites, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. It's the fourth launch of satellites in the SpaceX Starlink mission. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

A pair of aging satellites came uncomfortably close to colliding Wednesday night some 560 miles above Pittsburgh.

A California-based company named LeoLabs, which monitors space debris, warned that the two large objects were expected to pass within 50 to 300 feet of each other and estimated the odds of a collision between 20 to 1 and 100 to 1.

Given that the decommissioned satellites were traveling at a relative speed of about 33,000 miles an hour, it’s no wonder officials at space agencies around the world were holding their breath.

While the collision wouldn’t have rained debris onto the Steel City, thankfully, it would have caused no end of headaches in low earth orbit.

“There would be thousands of pieces of new debris that would stay in orbit for decades,” LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley told LiveScience. “Those new clouds of debris would threaten any satellites operating near the collision altitude and any spacecraft transiting through on its way to other destinations. The new debris (would) spread out and form a debris belt around the Earth.”

All of which is why it’s high time (no pun intended) for NASA and its international peer agencies to develop a global agreement aimed at monitoring and maintaining the planet’s increasingly clogged orbit.

The problem is only going to grow worse. While the two objects that whizzed past each other last night were ancient by space standards — a NASA telescope that died in 1983 and a gravitational experiment launched by the U.S. Air Force in 1967 — there are scores of new objects hurtling skyward every month.

The Elon Musk-founded aerospace company SpaceX just this week deployed 60 new satellites into orbit, joining the 180 it has already launched. It has permission to send 12,000 satellites into space and is eying even more.

Such networks ostensibly will improve earth-based technologies like internet access and GPS. Until they won’t. Because once they start destroying one another in collisions — which, given their numbers, seem inevitable — such benefits may be diminished or lost.

There are already millions of tons of space junk orbiting the planet — not only in the form of dead and active satellites but, in some cases, their remnants. U.S. and Russian satellites collided over Siberia in 2009, obliterating both and sending hundreds of pieces of debris into space.

And, of course, not all of the space junk stays in space. From the U.S. Skylab in 1979 to the Chinese Tiangong 1 Satellite in 2018, some form or other of space junk — defunct satellites, the upper stages of spent rockets and the like — reenters the earth’s atmosphere about once a week. That these items usually burn up in the atmosphere or, if larger, land in an ocean, mitigates concern but hardly solves the problem.

“Events like (last night’s near collision) highlight the need for responsible, timely deorbiting of satellites for space sustainability moving forward,” said LeoLabs in a Twitter message. (And, really, the fact that there is a company dedicated to tracking space debris only reinforces that argument.)

Clearly, a conscientious and concerted global effort to address the overcrowding — overpolluting, one might say — of the earth’s orbit is overdue.