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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Space Junk

Air Date: Week of March 23, 2001

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Transcript

CURWOOD: By the way, we won't be sending any more tree frogs, or, for that matter, anything or anybody up to Mir any more. On Friday, the space station came hurtling to Earth in a carefully-monitored descent. Mir's plummeting trajectory had people from Japan to Australia ready to dodge for cover, should any post-orbital litter from Mir end up in their back yards. But remnants of Mir aren't the only pieces of space junk cluttering the galaxy, and one man has made it his life's work to collect as much of that junk as he can. Jim Bernath is an amateur astronomer in British Columbia, where he's known as the Mr. Space of Canada, and where he owns a traveling museum of space junk. Hello, sir.

BERNATH: Yes, hello. Greetings.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, you have quite a collection of space junk. What is space junk?

BERNATH: Well, for me, it's anything that is a reject and is not used by the space program any more. But also, I have some pieces that came back from the sky. Some of these pieces are very big, of course. Some of these are satellites that are going to just slowly degrade in their orbits and come down. But others are spent pieces, half-sized pieces, and wrenches and the like.

CURWOOD: Now, how much junk is there floating out there in orbit, still?

BERNATH: Oh, boy. When I was first getting the numbers ten, fifteen years ago, it was on the order of 4,000 or 5,000 pieces. And now it's on the order of 7,000 or 9,000. So the number is going up.

CURWOOD: What kind of damage can this space junk cause when it's up there?

BERNATH: Well, the shuttle came home once with a quarter-inch crater, a quarter-inch crater in the windshield. And the pilots heard it when it hit. They heard the smack. Subsequently, as they fished in there and examined what, what, what, it turned out that that was caused by a little chip of paint.

CURWOOD: A fleck of paint?

BERNATH: A little chip of paint is what they traced it to. The little chip of paint. So these things, as they burn up and come home, or as they are hit and suffer abrasion in space, the paint gets chipped off or the metal burns, but the paint flakes stay behind or something like this.

CURWOOD: I imagine somebody must be keeping track of all this space junk up there, so that our spacecraft can navigate. Who's doing that and how do they do it?

BERNATH: Well, NASA certainly does that, and they all cooperate on that. So rather than harvest these things and get them swept up again, so far they're successfully able to deal with the problem by just monitoring where they are and knowing how close we're going to be with whatever flight.

CURWOOD: How much junk have you amassed from outer space?

BERNATH: I have 200 pieces.

CURWOOD: Wow, 200 pieces. Tell me what some of these pieces are.

BERNATH: Well, this fuel tank is Exhibit A. It's the size of a basketball and I've got it in front of me here now. And as you look at it, you can see the twisted, melted metal as it splattered across the front of it as it came down. It came down in a farmer's field in northern Saskatchewan.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BERNATH: And he found it in plus or minus 1980, a stone's throw away from the log cabin he was born in.

CURWOOD: Oh my.

BERNATH: And if you think of that for a minute, you know, when he was born nobody was even dreaming of space in northern Saskatchewan. And there, in his own lifetime, a piece comes down.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, how did the farmer feel about the prospect of getting beaned by this thing? I mean, it was just right next to his house.

BERNATH: Being a hollow sphere, the wind would slow it down; coming down through the air would slow it down a great deal because it's not heavy enough to force a path. And so, it would have hit the ground and bounced around a bit, and there it was. So, I don't think that he was really worried about being beaned by it. But if you carry it around long enough (laughs) I have this feeling every now and again that I might get something through the windshield because of its brother or sister in the back seat of my van.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, where do you keep all your space junk when you're not out on exhibition?

BERNATH: Wow, you can't walk into my house. (Laughs) I have more space in my house than anybody else on the continent, and yet you can't walk into it. How's that? Literally, you have to go sideways down the hall, just like the collection of debris in space. And instead of getting smaller, this area, you know, it's gotten worse.

CURWOOD: How do you go about collecting all this space junk?

BERNATH: Well, there are 200 of these artifacts we're talking about, things, space junk. And I travel across the country with this exhibit, which takes me literally from the Pacific to the Atlantic every year. So, it's Japan, China, India, Russia, the Arctic Circle, the Equator, and Houston, and whatever. And gathered everything that I could gather, and came home with whatever pieces I could come home with.

CURWOOD: Mr. Bernath, before you go, tell me, what's your favorite piece of space junk?

BERNATH: Well, this isn't space junk, but one of the spinoffs that I have is a mechanical heart valve. Now, this is right out of the space program. It's the carbon-titanium complex of stuff that they put together to make a heart valve. I've got this in my heart and you can listen to it and hear it running. Some people have their heart in their work. I've got my work in my heart.

CURWOOD: Jim Bernath is an amateur astronomer in British Columbia and a full-time collector of space junk. Mr. Bernath, happy hunting, and thanks so much for being here.

BERNATH: Thank you very much for having me. It's been a great pleasure. Good luck to you.

CURWOOD: And just ahead: Beautiful, green, and nearly extinct. The Puerto Rican parrot makes a bid for survival with some human help. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

 

Links

NASA's Orbital Debris Research Center at the Johnson Space Center">

 

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