VIENNA (AP) - Think of it as a galactic garbage dump.
With a recent satellite collision still fresh on minds, participants at a meeting in the Austrian capital this week are discussing ways to deal with space debris â€” junk that is clogging up the Earth's orbit.
Some suggest a cosmic cleanup is the way to go. Others say time, energy and funds are better spent on minimizing the likelihood of future crashes by improving information sharing.
The informal discussions on the sidelines of a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space arose from concern about the Feb. 10 collision of a derelict Russian spacecraft and a working U.S. Iridium commercial satellite.
The incident, which is still under investigation, generated space junk that could circle the Earth and threaten other satellites for the next 10,000 years; it added to the already worrying amount of debris surrounding the planet.
Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris, said about 19,000 objects are present in Earth's low and high orbit â€” including about 900 satellites, but much of it is just plain junk.
He estimated that included in the 19,000 count are about a thousand objects larger than 10 centimeters (4 inches) that were created by last week's satellite collision, in addition to many smaller ones. He predicted that if more junk accumulates, the likelihood of similar collisions â€” currently very rare â€” will increase by 2050.
To Johnson, the "true solution" in the long run is to go get the junk â€” or push it away to a higher altitude before it has time to crash into anything.
"Today's environment is all right but the environment is going to get worse, therefore I need to start thinking about the future and how can I clean up sometime in the future," he said.
Johnson is the co-lead of an International Academy of Astronautics study that is exploring ways of extracting space debris from the Earth's orbit.
Some of the suggestions sound pretty spaced out.
One proposes attaching balloons to pieces of debris to increase their atmospheric drag and bring them back to Earth faster. Another, said Johnson, foresees attaching a 10-mile (16-kilometer) electrodynamic tether to debris that would generate a current, which then could be controlled from the ground enabling technicians to bring it down.
Many scientists are skeptical about the possibility of a cleanup.
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