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Will Earth soon have a ring of space trash?

A team of researchers have devised a method to collect all the debris from Earth’s orbit into a “ring-dump” that is easier to manage than a cloud of garbage.

The Earth is one of the most unique planets there is. With its greenery, its oceans, its peculiar landforms and its clouds, it is a fabulous sight to behold, and all those who have had the chance to do it in person have come back transformed. But if we had to organize a beauty contest between celestial bodies, our Blue Planet would have competition. From the stormy swirls of Jupiter to the bright orange craters of March, there’s no shortage of candidates.

But few of them can compete with Saturn and its countless rings, much more and spectacular than those of other gas giants. They constitute a sort of crown, which attests to her status as the designated beauty queen of the solar system. But there is nothing to be jealous of for our Blue Planet: humanity could help it produce its own counterfeit!

This is the conclusion of the work of the University of Utah spotted by Future; according to their models, the Earth is indeed in the process of producing its own rings. But these will have nothing to do with those of Saturn, because our poor little complexed planet simply does not have the weapons to do so.

An adornment reserved for mastodons

If these gas giants have such rings, it is largely because of their titanic mass. This is so important that when an object gets too close to it, it is subjected to two extremely important and divergent forces. The first of these is the drive inertia force (FIE), the very one that kicks you out of a turnstile that is too fast. When the object approaches the planet, its orbital speed therefore increases more and more, and with it the FIE.

In parallel, by approaching the planet, the object will be subjected to an immense gravitational attraction, far beyond anything that exists in the vicinity of the Earth. The concern is that gravity and FIE act in very different directions; the object is therefore found pulled from all sides, like a collector’s t-shirt in the middle Black Friday. And the fate that awaits them is quite comparable.

When it gets too close to an object, these two forces become so great that the object in question eventually falls apart; we then say that the object has passed the Roche limit, or tidal radius. It is the small particles resulting from this fragmentation which end up forming a ring.

© Images individuelles : Theresa Scott – Wiki Commons

A human-made discharge ring

But our Earth is not massive enough to tear up huge objects with the force of gravity alone. It will therefore not be able to adorn itself with superb rings of ice, rock and dust like those of Saturn, or at least not in the near future. But the Blue Planet has a hidden ace up its sleeve: humanity, with its ugly habit of defiling its environment.

Because since the new space race is raging, the already significant problem of space waste is taking on truly worrying proportions. According to ESA, today there are more than 170 million debris of all kinds orbit the Earth, and travel tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. And it seems to be going to last; just look at Russia, which recently pulverized its own satellite in a military test that made fear the worst for the ISS.

If this debris is a real plague for the aerospace industry, to the point of making fear the famous Kessler syndrome. A scenario that smacks of disaster and should therefore be avoided at all costs. Many projects exist in this direction, but at the present time, concrete ideas are not jostling at the gate. And this is the whole point of the work of these researchers. They suggest that orbital pollution would be much easier to manage if it was organized properly.

The proliferation of waste in Earth’s orbit raises fears of a Kessler syndrome-like scenario. © NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

A temporary response to Kessler syndrome?

And this is not just an abstract concept. The team built a prototype robot capable of moving any object in orbit using a magnetic field – including those without magnetic properties! According to them, with enough time, a few of these robots could organize all this orbital jungle within a well-defined ring.

Of course, this provision would also be synonymous with new problems to be managed. But for engineers, that would be the promise of a certain serenity, since a ring would be easier to avoid than a cloud of waste. And for the Earth, it could serve as a chocolate medal, failing to be able to produce its own rings!

The text of the study is available here.

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