Numerous satellites, spacecraft, and pilots are seriously endangered by the thousands of bits of space detritus, also known as space junk, that are circling the Earth.
There is a drifting landfill in orbit around the Earth, and it fills up more and more each year.
Scientists refer to the thousands of fragments of damaged satellites and vehicles that clog Earth’s orbit as space debris, or space garbage in common usage. No matter its size, orbital detritus pose a serious risk to humans and spacecraft that operate in Earth’s orbit, according to NASA. Space junk can be as tiny as a paint fleck or as big as an abandoned rocket launch vehicle.
Along with the expansion of the space business on Earth, there is a rise in space junk in orbit. On March 10, a group of international researchers called for a legally-binding pact to “help protect Earth’s orbit” before it becomes irreversibly contaminated with detritus in an article published in the journal Science.
Here is all the information you need to know about space debris and the reasons why experts are worried.
What is space junk?
Any human-made detritus still in orbit around the Earth is referred to as space junk.
Including both broken pieces of machinery produced when bigger objects impact with smaller ones as well as completely functional satellites that have run out of power and been abandoned in orbit after completing their tasks. Space debris includes even the tiniest paint splatters that rockets have shed.
How much space junk is there right now?
More than 23,000 objects bigger than a softball are presently being tracked by the United States Space Surveillance Network. According to the Natural History Museum of London(opens in new browser), this includes about 3,000 retired satellites that have been allowed to deteriorate in space. The United States Space Surveillance Network is currently tracking more than 23,000 objects larger than a baseball. This includes about 3,000 decommissioned satellites that have been left to deteriorate in space, according to the Natural History Museum of London(opens in new window).
The majority of orbital debris is, however, much too tiny to be monitored. The Science research estimates that there are more than 100 trillion untraced bits of space debris in Earth orbit. According to the European Space Agency(opens in new tab), the overwhelming majority of this untracked debris is probably less than 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) broad. (ESA).
Why is space junk a problem?
Space debris, no matter how small, can do tremendous harm. This is due to the fact that things in orbit travel very rapidly, frequently exceeding 15,600 mph (25,200 km/h), or ten times the speed of an ordinary bullet fired on Earth. The force is amplified if two things collide in space while traveling in opposite directions.
This implies that even microscopic things have the potential to transform into deadly projectiles when they are in orbit. This was demonstrated in 2016 when a tiny paint fleck struck a pane on the International Space Station, denting the glass by a quarter-inch. (Fortunately, the window held). This suggests that even the smallest objects have the capacity to become lethal missiles while in orbit. A small paint fleck that hit a window on the International Space Station in 2016 and caused a quarter-inch hole in the glass served as a demonstration of this. (Fortunately, the window held).
Can space junk fall to Earth?
Yes, space debris does occasionally descend to Earth. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 200 to 400 bits of tracked space junk fall through Earth’s atmosphere on average each year.(opens in new tab).
The majority of this debris that falls freely is so tiny that it burns up completely in the atmosphere before it ever reaches the earth. Usually, but not always, larger items that can withstand the descent (like satellites) splash down into the water. A charred, spike-like piece of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship crashed to earth in Australia on a sheep property in August 2022. The vast majority of this loosely falling debris is so small that it burns up in the atmosphere entirely before it ever hits the ground. Larger objects that can survive the descent, such as satellites, typically but not always splash down into the ocean. In August 2022, a burned, spike-shaped fragment of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft fell to Earth in Australia on a sheep farm.
Space junk incidents
According to NASA, on February 10, 2009, a crashed Russian spacecraft added more than 2,300 bits of trackable space debris to orbit and destroyed a working U.S. Iridium commercial satellite.
A fragment of a Russian missile struck and killed a working Chinese military satellite in March 2021. A tiny fragment of unexplained space junk collided with the robotic arm of the International Space Station in June 2021, inflicting damage but not total destruction. Due to the annual addition of more space debris to orbit, incidents are happening more frequently. In March 2021, a piece of a Russian rocket collided with and destroyed a functioning Chinese military satellite. In June 2021, a tiny piece of mysterious space debris impacted with the robotic arm of the International Space Station, causing harm but avoiding complete devastation. Incidents are occurring more frequently as a result of the yearly increase in space junk in orbit.