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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Growing Threat of Space Junk

Messy space: Will orbiting trash threaten the Hubble repair mission?

Think garbage is a problem on the ground? Out-of-this-world solutions may be needed to get rid of the growing swarm of space trash, including debris from last week's smashup between a Russian and a U.S. satellite.

That's the word from this week's meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the Associated Press reports. Among the possible remedies floating around the Vienna confab: giving orbital debris parachute-like balloons that would increase their atmospheric drag and pull them back to Earth faster or attaching a 10-mile (16-kilometer) electrodynamic tether to a piece of circling junk that would allow technicians to control its descent.

There are about 19,000 objects in Earth orbit, most of it junk, Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris, told the AP. In addition to 900 satellites and approximately 1,000 "large" (bigger than four inches, or 10 centimeters) remnants from the February 10 collision, the sum of what's floating in the cosmos includes trash from manned space missions. Some of the satellite collision debris could remain in orbit for up to 10,000 years, we noted last week—and if more accumulates, the chances of additional crashes will increase by 2050, Johnson told the newswire. (The European Union has a "code of conduct for outer space activities" that includes taking "appropriate steps to minimize the risk of collision.")

Short of a cosmic trash haul, pushing the junk to a higher altitude—where there would be a lower probability of a fender bender with anything—is another alternative, Johnson told the newswire. "Today's environment is alright, but the environment is going to get worse," he said.

Will the collision's debris scuttle the shuttle servicing mission to spruce up the Hubble Space Telescope in May? Wired Science, picking up on a story by Nature News, says the chance of debris from the collision hitting Atlantis may make the mission too risky. The expedition wouldn't be canceled, though, unless the chance of a shuttle crashing into space junk exceeds one in 60, Wired's Alexis Madrigal tweeted this afternoon. Astronauts are expected to upgrade the telescope, which launched in 1990, with new instruments and replace routing hardware, which failed in September. Engineers were able to get it back on line using a backup system, but because this is the last time Hubble will be repaired, NASA wants to give it a complete overhaul, which will increase its operational lifetime into the next decade.

"From a standpoint of space operations and the space shuttle program, NASA is going to treat the Hubble mission like any other shuttle flight," a spokesperson for the agency, Beth Dickey, told Wired Science. "It's going to get a thorough risk assessment as time passes. The readiness for flight will be determined as we get closer" to the mission.

The Hubble Space Telescope berthed in Endeavour's cargo bay during December 1993 repair mission/NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

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