WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- “Space junk” or orbital debris is any object that’s no longer useful orbiting the earth, according to NASA.
- For decades, space agencies around the world have been launching objects to space, and a lot of them haven’t returned to Earth.
- It’s estimated that there are millions of pieces of debris floating as space junk.
The U.S. Space Surveillance Network traces about 21,000 orbiting space junk bigger than a softball and there are also millions of small pieces that are untraceable. When traveling at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour, these small pieces of debris can cause a lot of damage.
“It turns out that particles as small as 5 millimeters can be catastrophic to a spacecraft if it’s in the wrong location,” Nick Johnson, former NASA chief scientist studying orbital debris, said. “Even the International Space Station, which is the most heavily designed vehicle ever flown, is susceptible to anything larger than about half an inch.”
As a matter of fact, the ISS has to move out of the way from time to time to accommodate threatening debris.
Space junk can include disused satellites, worn out rocket stages and other particles of debris from previous space journeys.
“If we continue to operate as we have done, launching typically 70, 80 new missions every single year around the world then the rate of collision is going to increase to a degree greater than we currently have,” Johnson added.
It was reported in 1996 that a French satellite was hit and damaged by a debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.
A disused Russian satellite hit and destroyed an operational U.S. Iridium orbiter in 2009, creating more than 2,000 pieces of space junk.
Lisa Ruth Rand, a research associate at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum said in an episode of museum’s ‘What’s New in Aerospace?’ “Sometimes we generate debris when we’re trying to clean up debris but fail. So, in 2007, China attempted to bring down one of its own defunct weather satellites, and in doing so created one of the largest plumes of debris ever created in orbit.”
Managing the space junk problem presents difficulties, but there are attempts to cut it. NASA, JAXA, Roscosmos, CNSA, CNES, and ESA have created guidelines to lessen the creation of new debris. In 2007, the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space developed its own set of guidelines.
Johnson said: “Unfortunately, even some of the best minds currently around the world, we still have not yet identified a single concept” to fix the space junk problem.”