by Samantha Masunaga / © 2021, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Space is vast. But the area around our planet is getting crowded.
New technologies and the proliferation of competing rocket companies have made it cheaper to reach low Earth orbit. But more objects in space can also mean more spacecraft-damaging collisions. And surrounding Earth with a continually denser layer of outmoded junk means that eventually there wouldn’t be room for the new, useful satellites of the future.
A potential solution
That’s why, [one night last year], three engineers were out in Joshua Tree [National Park in California]. They’re part of a team exploring a possible solution: a device that would help satellite owners clean up after themselves.
Their goal that night? To track the impending fiery demise of a small satellite.
Alchemy—the name of the satellite soon to face its doom—was built by Millennium Space Systems, a division of Boeing Co., to test a technology that would help drag spacecraft lower into the atmosphere to burn up after the craft’s mission is complete.
Alchemy was launched in November  with its twin, Augury, which will serve as the control, demonstrating how much longer Alchemy would hang around as space junk without the new tech dragging it further down into the atmosphere. The program running this experiment has a tongue-in-cheek name: DRAGRACER.
“It’s definitely an appropriate name,” said Patrick Kelly, the DRAGRACER program manager. “They’re racing back to Earth. One has a very clear advantage over the other.”
Currently, long-dead satellites, spent rocket bodies and other pieces of outdated spacecraft float in orbit for years. There are about 23,000 pieces of space debris larger than a softball circling the planet, according to NASA. Objects that are too small to be tracked also pose a threat. NASA estimates there are 500,000 marble-sized pieces of junk in Earth’s orbit, along with more than 100 million that are 1 millimeter or smaller.
More space junk means the potential for more collisions, which in turn create more junk.
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