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Clyde Tombaugh spent much of his life peering at telescope data. He discovered Pluto in 1930, and he spent years poking around the outer solar system. But as the scientific community began to dream about launching a vehicle into the great beyond, he focused his gaze much closer to home.
At the time, the smaller stuff in our immediate space environment remained largely a mystery. People like Tombaugh worried whether orbiting gunk would make spaceflight that much harder. If they ever built a spaceship, would space litter pummel it irreparably?
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As part of a 1950s Army project, Tombaugh tried to find out. But before he finished, the Soviets sent the world’s first object to orbit. When Sputnik first spun around Earth, in 1957, Tombaugh's equipment caught it: a shiny sphere, just about two feet across. The fact that he could spot it meant that if dangerous debris had been orbiting, he likely would have found it too. And he hadn't. When he published his final report in 1959, Tombaugh concluded that rockets faced little risk of colliding with natural objects.
Humans have since sent thousands of rockets to space. In their cargo holds, they have stored satellites that help humans communicate, wage war, watch TV, and grok planetary processes. Sometimes, as Sputnik did not long after launch, these objects finish their useful lives, slip back into the surly bonds of Earth, and burn up in the atmosphere. There’s the glove that a Gemini astronaut let slip from the first spacewalk, and a spatula from a shuttle mission. Once, a tool bag escaped an ISS astronaut and floated around for eight months. Other times, however, junk remains in orbit long after it's useful. A Chinese missile, for instance, smashed a Chinese satellite into thousands of pieces, some of which continue to circle and circle.
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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