One Man's Incredible Project Catalogs 57,424 Manmade Objects In Space, Including Elon Musk's Car
An astronomer spent decades documenting everything humans have launched into space, and now it's online as an open-source catalog.
If you've ever wondered why people complain about "space junk," look no further than the General Catalog of Artificial Space Objects, or GCAT. It's the most complete catalog of every manmade object floating in space, including everything from satellites and spacecraft to debris and one infamous Tesla Roadster. The open-source GCAT was the life's work of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who first started tracking rocket launches as a kid, according to Vice.
McDowell was fascinated by the Apollo program that put the first man on the moon decades ago, and that fascination never let up.
“It was hard for me growing up in England to get details about space because the media there weren't as interested in it as the U.S. media, so in a slightly obsessive way I started making a list of rocket launches," McDowell told Vice. "Many kids did at that time, but I just took it a little further and tagged on with it for 40 years. Now I have the best list.”
His list is massive. It includes about 2,000 active satellites along with a bunch of other stuff, running the gamut from decommissioned satellites, parts of broken equipment, SpaceX's car-bearing test payload and stuff lost by astronauts.
There are numerous listings for "EVA debris," wherein EVA stands for "extravehicular activity." Translation: "things dropped on spacewalks." That Hasselblad camera sounds pretty sweet, for one.
That relatively short list of things dropped or fumbled into microgravity pales in comparison to the 347 GCAT entries for "garbage bag." "Leave no trace" clearly didn't expand to space, but to be fair, the International Space Station still—to this day—jettisons capsules full of poop and trash with the expectation that they'll burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Keep that in mind the next time you're looking for shooting stars.
The amount of detail given for nearly 60,000 objects is truly incredible. Not only are the satellites labelled as to whether they're civilian, military or commercial, but there are also things like the extensive list of debris from the Fengyun-1C satellite that was destroyed in a Chinese anti-satellite missile test.
"Space junk" like this can cause substantial damage and destruction to other spacecraft, which then creates more debris, and it's this big, bad snowball effect in Earth's orbit, where there are currently no binding laws or treaties mandating that you pick up after yourself. Yikes. Collecting space trash moving at orbital velocities isn't exactly an easy engineering feat, either.
McDowell has published a newsletter tracking launches and missions since 1989, and a lot of that work as well as archival research went into the GCAT. That research got especially intense, as Vice notes that he learned Russian to be able to research and track even more launches. He's also received more information from well-connected readers over the years, such as one who invited him to France's Toulouse Space Center, where he left with copies of microfiche records on old rockets.
The GCAT is the first time some of this work has been compiled in one space or even published. The entire catalog is open-source and published under a Creative Commons CC-BY license, allowing anyone to use and share it with citation. McDowell told Vice that "the thought of COVID and imminent death" spurred him to put it out there, as he notes, "There's no point if it dies with me."
As with the newsletter, publishing this data also allows the readers to be a source for corrections as well as more information.
“I'm imagining that 1,000 years from now there will be more people living off Earth than on, and that they will look back to this moment in history as critically important,” McDowell told Vice. “My audience is the historian 1,000 years from now.”
McDowell also told Vice that he has a couple other interesting plans in the works, such as one to document the life history of each satellite in the database, and a new catalog of objects in deep space. He also knows that giant text and .tsv files aren't the most accessible formats to dig through, so he's considering making a simplified version of the GCAT for less experienced users.
In the meantime, though, he's got a nice start and a fascinating catalog of just how much we've sent into space thus far. Just keep all of this in mind the next time you decide to send any other cars up there, and please don't leave a mess.
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