Above our streets: What is flying around in our atmosphere?

There is nothing quite like looking at the sky on a clear night while admiring at the earth’s natural satellite, the moon. However, there are many artificial objects that also orbit our planet our atmosphere. These items are also continuing to increase with new projects. Let’s take a look at these.

International Space Station
The International Space Station is the largest artificial satellite that orbits within the earth’s atmosphere. Photo: Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

A modern phenomenon

Since the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, various nations have put thousands of satellites into orbit around the Earth. Currently, there there are approximately 1,900 active artificial satellites floating the planet. These help with earth’s communications, navigations, research, and space exploration.

With space programs becoming more ambitious than ever, this number may rise rapidly. This could start increasing problems for astronomers, as they heavily rely on the ability to view beyond the atmosphere. There are already reports of these satellites blocking views.

Disruptive behavior

Earlier this week, astronomers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile reported that satellites from SpaceX heavily obstructed their view of the night sky. Forbes reports that a train or satellites from the Starlink constellation caused five minutes of obstruction, resulting in a series of redundant images.

SpaceX’s Starlink project caused a disruption in the atmosphere for astronomers this week. Photo: SpaceX via Flickr

This might not seem so damaging but when it comes to observation, every second counts. This is important to note as SpaceX plans to eventually have 42,000 of these Starlink satellites up and running. CEO Elon Musk hopes that this series of small satellites can improve connectivity on earth, with schemes such as global broadband.

Meanwhile, according to BBC Science Focus, there are also over 100,000 bits of space debris floating around the atmosphere. These have mostly come from exploding rocket stages and inactive satellites. There are also miscellaneous pieces such as astronaut accessories, including gloves, cameras, and tools.

The smaller pieces aren’t so dangerous or interruptive. However, bodies such as NASA have to plan to maneuver away from the larger when traveling into space. There are concerns that with programs such as Starlink and its planned rival OneWeb, there will be a huge rise of space junk floating in the atmosphere.

Orbit Nasa Spacex Aeronautics Space Satellite
With there being more satellites planned, there could be further disruptions in the atmosphere. Photo: Max Pixel

The key player

On the other end of the spectrum is the planet’s largest artificial satellite. Including its solar panels, the International Space Station (ISS) is as large as a rugby field. The bud generally holds crews of between three and six people from different nationalities across the globe.

At the moment, the United States has representatives in the form of Christina Koch and Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir in the station. Additionally, Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka join from Russia. Italy’s Luca Parmitano makes up the sixth person.

There are three types of orbits that these satellites mostly adhere to. The ISS operates at an altitude of 400 km, which is a Low Earth orbit (LEO) between 200 and 2,000 km. Many satellites also orbit at 2,000 km, which is is the altitude of a Medium Earth orbit (MEO). Meanwhile, several communication and weather satellites operate a Geostationary orbit (GEO), which is 36,000 km above the Earth.

Satellites massively help with modern functions on the earth today, along with helping us explore new heights within the planet’s neighborhood and even outer space. However, care needs to be taken when considering other aspects of the globe. There needs to be well-reviewed programs to ensure there isn’t disruption, along with suitable clean-up initiatives.

What are your thoughts on these objects that float in our atmosphere? Let us know what you think in the comment section.

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