Environmental engineering student studies space pollution

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On April 8, 2009

Most environmental engineering students are concerned about conditions on Earth. Nicholas Jarnagin, a senior in environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, is worried about pollution in space.

Specifically, Jarnagin is concerned with human-made pollution that is locked in orbit around the Earth — everything from pieces of old satellites to frozen rocket fuel and jettisoned human waste.

Jarnagin says the military tracks roughly 18,000 pieces of space junk, big and small. Last month, a four-inch piece of debris caused International Space Station astronauts, including Missouri S&T graduate Dr. Sandra Magnus, to take shelter in an escape vehicle.

“Some of the debris starts out as larger pieces of satellites and rockets,” says Jarnagin, who is from Maryville, Ill. “They collide and break up and go faster. The average velocity of a small piece of debris is about 21,000 miles per hour.”

Jarnagin decided to study space trash to satisfy the requirements of a solid waste management class taught by Dr. Joel Burken, a professor of environmental engineering at S&T.

On April 21, Jarnagin is traveling to Jefferson City, Mo., where he will share his findings with state lawmakers as part of the Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol event. Each year, selected students from all four campuses in the University of Missouri system participate in Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.

Just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, space is getting more and more crowded with every shuttle or rocket launch and with the rapid deployment of satellites. Ideally, Jarnagin says, new satellites will be able to maneuver themselves at the end of their lives so that they “fall” and burn up in the atmosphere.

There are some pretty wild ideas about how to clean up the existing mess that stays in orbit around the Earth, according to Jarnagin. Giant space nets or space sponges, for instance, could conceivably be used to capture the trash.

Until a massive clean-up does take place, those who travel into space will have to continue to be very careful. The recent near-collision between the space station and the small piece of deadly debris that went whizzing by it at frightening speeds serves as a warning.

“The Hubble Space Telescope has been hit,” Jarnagin says. “But the debris fields are well tracked. Nothing really serious has happened yet.”

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