Solar orbiters are great ways for studying the Sun, and are part of how we’ve learned so much about our Solar System’s greatest natural energy source. However, even though the Sun is certainly hot enough to melt and ionize any terrestrial matter we send into contact with it, it’s an extraordinarily difficult task to actually send anything, like our garbage, into the Sun
Imagine our planet as it was for the first 4.55 billion years of its existence. Fires, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, asteroid strikes, hurricanes and many other natural disasters were ubiquitous, as was biological activity throughout our entire measured history. Most of the environmental changes that occurred were gradual and isolated; only in a few instances — often correlated with mass extinctions — were the changes global, immediate, and catastrophic.
But with the arrival of human beings, Earth’s natural environment has another element to contend with: the changes wrought upon it by our species. For tens of thousands of years, the largest wars were merely regional skermishes; the largest problems with waste led only to isolated disease outbreaks. But our numbers and technological capabilities have grown, and with it, a waste management problem. You might think a great solution would be to send our worst garbage into the Sun, but we’ll never make it happen. Here’s why.
The very first launch of the Falcon Heavy, on February 6, 2018, was a tremendous success. The rocket reached low-Earth-orbit, deployed its payload successfully, and the main boosters returned to Cape Kennedy, where they landed successfully. The promise of a reusable heavy-lift vehicle is now a reality, and could lower launch costs to ~$1000/pound. Still, even with all these advances, we won’t be launching our garbage into the Sun anytime soon.
At present, there are a little more than 7 billion humans on the planet, and the previous century saw us at last become a spacefaring civilization, where we’ve broken the gravitational bonds that have kept us shackled to Earth. We’ve extracted valuable and rare minerals and elements, synthesized new chemical compounds, developed nuclear technologies, and produced new technologies that far exceed even the wildest dreams of our distant ancestors.
Although these new technologies have transformed our world and improved our quality of life, there are negative side-effects that have come along for the ride. We now have the capacity to cause widespread damage and destruction to our environment in a variety of ways, from deforestation to atmospheric pollution to ocean acidification and more. With time and care, the Earth will begin self-regulating as soon as we stop exacerbating these problems. But other problems just aren’t going to get better on their own on any reasonable timescale.
Nuclear weapon test Mike (yield 10.4 Mt) on Enewetak Atoll. The test was part of the Operation Ivy. Mike was the first hydrogen bomb ever tested. A release of this much energy corresponds to approximately 500 grams of matter being converted into pure energy: an astonishingly large explosion for such a tiny amount of mass. Nuclear reactions involving fission or fusion (or both, as in the case of Ivy Mike) can produce tremendously dangerous, long-term radioactive waste.
Some of what we’ve produced here on Earth isn’t merely a problem to be reckoned with over the short-term, but poses a danger that will not significantly lessen with time. Our most dangerous, long-term pollutants include nuclear by-products and waste, hazardous chemicals and biohazards, plastics that off-gas and don’t biodegrade, and could wreak havoc on a significant fraction of the living beings on Earth if they got into the environment in the wrong way.
You might think that the “worst of the worst” of these offenders should be packed onto a rocket, launched into space, and sent on a collision course with the Sun, where at last they won’t plague Earth anymore. (Yes, that was similar to the plot of Superman IV.) From a physics point of view, it’s possible to do so.
But should we do it? That’s another story entirely, and it begins with considering how gravitation works on Earth and in our Solar System.
The Mercury-bound MESSENGER spacecraft captured several stunning images of Earth during a gravity assist swingby of its home planet on Aug. 2, 2005. Several hundred images, taken with the wide-angle camera in MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS), were sequenced into a movie documenting the view from MESSENGER as it departed Earth. Earth rotates roughly once every 24 hours on its axis and moves through space in an elliptical orbit around our Sun.
post was sponsored by forbes
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