back to article Cargo truck crammed with garbage explodes IN SPAAAAACE

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have turned the Earth's atmosphere into their own personal trash incinerator after sending a cargo truck packed with rubbish to its fiery death. The orbiting litter louts packed the commercial spacecraft Cygnus full of rubbish and then steered it Earthwards so it would burn up …

  1. Steve Todd Silver badge

    The big problem up there

    Is all the junk that HASN'T been de-orbited and burned up in the upper atmosphere. Even small junk moving at about 7km/s can cause serious damage and there's lots of discussion over how to clean the junk up to reduce the risk to working hardware and people up there.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: The big problem up there

      The junk may be moving at 7km/s relative to the surface of the Earth, but anything else in low Earth orbit is going to be moving at much the same speed and general direction. That said, if you're out on a space walk and you get hit by something moving at even 10m/s relative to you, you're going to notice.

      1. Tom 35

        Re: The big problem up there

        " going to be moving at much the same speed and general direction."

        Expect some stuff is in a polar orbit, and some is equatorial orbit.

        1. Charles Manning

          Re: The big problem up there

          "Expect some stuff is in a polar orbit, and some is equatorial orbit."

          Space is 3D.

          The stuff in a polar orbit does not fly at the same altitude as stuff in an equatorial orbit or a LEO.

          It won't hit you.

          1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

            Re: The big problem up there

            "The stuff in a polar orbit does not fly at the same altitude as stuff in an equatorial orbit or a LEO."

            Have they assigned flight levels to the various types of orbit? Not that that would work - apart from being non-circular, orbits change and decay hence the need for station keeping. If something's in a fixed orbit it's because someone wants it to stay there.

      2. Steve Todd Silver badge

        Re: The big problem up there

        You're assuming that the junk is all in circular orbits. If, as is more likely, the orbit is elliptical then relative velocities can be much higher than that.

        The other point you missed out on are items being boosted into orbit. They have to travel through the debris fields at speeds far removed from orbital velocity at that altitude.

        So while the relative velocities are unlikely to be 7km/sec they are still fast enough for tiny things to do a lot of damage.

        Edit: and as mentioned above, if the orbits are at 90 degrees to each other then you still get the full 7km/sec.

        1. oldcoder

          Re: The big problem up there

          And the vector sum of the resulting debris could be higher (maximum of 14km/sec, if it happens to be going in the wrong direction).

          If it were lower than 7 it would burn up...

      3. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: The big problem up there

        If you're hit by something moving at 7km/s in the opposite direction to your 7km/s you won't notice, it'll just be lights out.

        (FWIW that's why EVA spacesuits are so bulky. The actual pressure suits are fairly slim, but there are lots of layers of armour to try and protect against micrometeors)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The big problem up there

      They even made a TV series about it at the end of the 70s (Salvage 1)

  2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    The real question

    Do they have to separate recyclables and organics into different coloured spacecraft?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: The real question

      Nope. They just chuck everything into the big blue bin provided.

    2. stucs201

      Re: separate recyclables and organics

      For the sake of returning astronauts I hope at least some of the organics come back in a separate spaceship.

      1. Myvekk

        Re: separate recyclables and organics

        All into the can and returned to Earth for recyling. (In a manner of speaking...)

        Astronaut presentation: What shooting stars really are. (At least some of them...)

  3. Michael Habel Silver badge

    Could Micro Bacteria, or Viri survive a trip like that?

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Maybe, if they'd made their way into a large lump of ceramic. Without a heat shield it's unlikely that anything larger than a drop of molten metal made it as far as the lower atmosphere. Rock or ceramic would be a better material to hitch a ride on (well, in), since it would ablate and in doing so carry away some of the heat, possibly allowing bugs in the middle of the lump to avoid pasteurisation.

    2. Pet Peeve

      The temperatures reach thousands or even ten thousands of degrees - any biological matter would be carbon slag if it even made it to the ground. It's hard to survive it on purpose, let alone accidentally in a reentry designed to burn up everything.

      P.S. "Viri" is a plural form of "man" in Latin. There is no Latin plural for virus, the plural is simply "viruses".

      1. Irony Deficient

        Latin plural for virus

        Pet Peeve, the Latin (nominative) plural for virus (“venom”), as a noun of the second declension, is indeed viri (with both letters I being long). However, only the last letter I is long for viri (“men”).

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

          1. Irony Deficient

            Re: Latin plural for virus

            Arnaut the less, who is trying to enforce partial Latin grammar on English? Pet Peeve’s claim was that There is no Latin plural for virus, and my reply addressed only that claim. I took Michael’s use of viri as being entirely tongue-in-cheek; didn’t you?

            1. cortland

              Re: Latin plural for virus

              Ultra vires, possibly?

    3. phil dude

      low reynolds number...

      Actually bacteria or virus particles would probably not burn up, on their own. Even at such a large velocity their low mass/volume would bring them to a screeching halt, and they would fall like rain....

      I can vouch for my own experiments when using highly energetic electrons (32 kEV) to observe E.coli using a transmission electron microscope - (atmospheric pressure probably 10-8 Torr).

      The bacteria certainly didn't explode, in fact they didn't even lyse...

      I'm not saying they were *happy*!!

      The ESA has actually tried the experiment with a real rock, here, and bacteria do not survive within the rock, as it gets too hot...

      However it is not too hard to imagine the right shaped rock acting as a heat shield , *just* so...


      1. Leeroy

        Re: low reynolds number...

        Maybe a silly question but.... What if they threw / pushed a feather or a piece of paper towards the earth from the iss ? Would it burn up or just slowly decelerate and land somewhere ?

        Physics was never my strong point but I'm sure other people are thinking the same thing :)

        1. phil dude

          Re: low reynolds number...

          I would imagine there is a mass/volume threshold when any object first strikes a significant density of gas, would tend to heat or slow down. Since both processes involve the exchange of kinetic energy for heating (and with ablation as mentioned) which produces braking.

          So ISS velocity is 7660 m/s , kinetic energy of something feather like (4 g say)= 1/2 x 0.004 * 7660^2= 117kJ

          Change in Temp = Total energy in/(mass * specific heat)

          deltaT=(117x10^3)/(0.004*1700) = 17257 K.

          Charred feather assuming it took a few minutes? Probably pieces... (assuming 1700 J/kg.K specific heat for generic protein and negligible radiation).

          This of course, is a maximum based solely on kinetic energy conversion, but atmospheric interactions play a large part. Specifically the Space Shuttle tiles ride a pressure wave that creates a plasma to dissipate the energy.

          You can see NASA approved numbers here .

          This back of envelope calculation highlights just how amazing space vehicle re-entry engineering is, since it is clearly a very hostile environment!!


        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: low reynolds number...

          The issue is that you can't drop something from the ISS to earth.

          The ISS is in orbit doing 7km/s 'sideways' if you drop something it is also doing 7km/s sideways.

          Everything going 7km/s sideways is going to stay in the same orbit.

          If you want it to go down you need to reduce its sideways-speed

          You could just halt yourself and then fall gently (assuming you had a parachute) but to do this you need to get rid of the 7km/s. One way to do this is to have an engine capable of reaching 7km/s the other way. However a moments thought will realise that this is the same size as the rocket that it took to do the original 7km/s - which you would have to carry with you.

          This is the reason for doing the spectacular "re-entry", it is to use the Earth's atmosphere to burn off that extra speed rather than carry the fuel and engines needed

          1. Tom 13

            Re: low reynolds number...

            Mostly. But if you eject something from the space station (you can't really drop it) it now has a very slightly different vector. And that vector will now deteriorate in a different way than the space station does. Which is what generates the real problem with all the space junk. For all the tens of thousands of things they are tracking, and calculating orbits around, there are just as many more they aren't.

    4. MrT

      Cameras inside.

      When ATV-5 re-enters in about 6 months, it will include video footage from inside as it goes, which might give a virus' eye view of what it might feel like. My guess would be 'OW!', before the camera burns up too...

    5. Martin Budden Bronze badge
      Paris Hilton

      @Michael Habel

      Are Micro Bacteria even tinier than normal bacteria?

      1. cortland

        Re: @Michael Habel

        Smaller than my Auntie Becteria, at any rate.

    6. ZippedyDooDah

      "Could Micro Bacteria, or Viri survive a trip like that?"

      If anything can, a Tradigrade can

  4. wowfood


    We finally have a solution. Dig up the landfills, scoop up that trash island out to sea, stick it all on a space ship and have it incinerated in the atmosphere... FOR SCIENCE!

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Vinyl-Junkie

      Re: Eureka!

      I remember a US politician proposing in the 1980s, quite seriously, that the way to get rid of nuclear waste was to put it in disposal canisters which would be shot into space on a trajectory that would result in them being pulled into the sun.

      Fortunately NASA's view that it was far too risky prevailed....

      1. AdamT

        Re: Eureka!

        I remember reading an "aimed at teenagers" sci-fi series where some teens made themselves a space ship out of a hollowed asteroid and went off and had adventures, etc. Kind of "Enid Blyton in Space" I guess. But one of the books had them meeting up with an apparently abandoned space ship that turned out to be full of nuclear waste and heading for the Sun...

        Can't remember what the series was called or who it was by though.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Eureka!

          That sounds like one of Nicholas Fisk's "Star Stormers" books :)

          1. AdamT

            Re: Eureka!

            Mr @AC - you are correct. I did indulge in a bit of googling after my post and found it eventually - surprisingly hard when you can't remember the name of the series, the titles of any of the books nor the author!

      2. John Sager

        Sunward trash

        Delta-V is a bitch too.

      3. Dan Paul

        Re: Eureka!

        We don't know what would have happened and it would be likely that as long as the trash "hit" the sun, it would be completely vaporized as the temperature would be so high, all materials of any kind would disassociate into atoms.

        NASA was more concerned that there would be an accident during launch not that the sun would have a problem.

        1. Vinyl-Junkie

          Re: Eureka!

          Apologies, I didn't make myself clear; it was indeed the possibility of an accident on launch that had NASA (and a lot of other people) concerned. I think the Challenger accident finally put paid to the idea.

      4. Myvekk

        Re: Eureka!

        Just wait until The Beanstalk is finished!

    2. Leeroy

      Re: Eureka!

      The smelloscope from futurama ?

  5. imanidiot Silver badge

    Return in just such a fireball?

    I would hope mister Gerst doesn't return in exactly that kind of fireball. Would be better to keep the spacecraft intact!

    1. Vector

      Re: Return in just such a fireball?

      I thought exactly the same thing! Have a upvote

  6. Elmer Phud

    Space Junk

    Some older people may remember a little band called 'Devo'

    "A soviet sputnik hit Africa

    India, Venezuela, in Texas, Kansas

    It's falling fast Peru too

    It keeps coming, it keeps coming, it keeps coming"

    1. Myvekk

      Re: Space Junk

      Remember Skylab? They knew it was coming down, just not when or where...

      Much of it ended up scattered over Australia.

  7. Chris G Silver badge


    Mentored by Dave Bowie IIRC

  8. Stevie Silver badge


    Typical! The police arrive with a pair of fire trucks in tow if I burn so much as a handful of leaves but these buggers set light to seven tons of assorted non-recyclables and get a standing ovation.

    1. Fungus Bob

      Re: Bah!

      Patience, Stevie. Just wait until Officer Obie finds out...

    2. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      Not sure on your jurisdiction, but most US cities (I'm assuming you're in the US, I may be mistaken) have exceptions for cooking fires. (aka BBQ grills etc).

      SO the trick is to have a hotdog on a stick and an innocent expression when they turn up

  9. StimuliC

    The council have sent a court order to the Space Station

    Yep, those snoopers from the council have diverted all interest in dog poop to sending out fines to the Space station for littering. LOL

    1. Martin Budden Bronze badge

      Re: The council have sent a court order to the Space Station

      Now you've made me think of dog poop burning up during atmospheric re-entry. Yuk.

  10. Winkypop Silver badge


    It's not Thursday!

  11. promytius

    not new

    UFO's have always referred to Earth as "The Big Blue Waste Bowl" - it's about time we followed their lead. Watch the papers for future ads for the company,SYSIS - Shoot Your Stuff Into Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.

  12. cortland

    re that ASBO

    Any debris that makes it to the surface remain property of NASA.

    1. DiViDeD Silver badge

      Re: re that ASBO

      Sorry, just had this image of a turd in an envelope with the marking 'Property of NASA - Please return' on it.

      No, I don't get out much - why do you ask?

      1. cortland

        Re: re that ASBO

        You can be the first to earn 15 minutes of fame and millions of hits on YouTube. Just find and return to NASA the specially marked object described on the reverse of this rather soft form ... Do not polish.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Should I ever be lucky enough

    In some future incarnation travel out to space I would not like to be taken out by some 7km/s rapidly defrosting turd.

    I know, I know, it's "all about me" but I have just discovered a personal preference I never knew I had.

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