This story was originally published by WIRED and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Clyde Tombaugh spent much of his life peering at telescope data. He discovered Pluto in 1930, and he spent years poking around the outer solar system. But as the scientific community began to dream about launching a vehicle into the great beyond, he focused his gaze much closer to home.
At the time, the smaller stuff in our immediate space environment remained largely a mystery. People like Tombaugh worried whether orbiting gunk would make spaceflight that much harder. If they ever built a spaceship, would space litter pummel it irreparably?
As part of a 1950s Army project, Tombaugh tried to find out. But before he finished, the Soviets sent the world’s first object to orbit. When Sputnik first spun around Earth, in 1957, Tombaugh’s equipment caught it: a shiny sphere, just about two feet across. The fact that he could spot it meant that if dangerous debris had been orbiting, he likely would have found it, too. And he hadn’t. When he published his final report in 1959, Tombaugh concluded that rockets faced little risk of colliding with n... Read more