Space junk is becoming a real problem

If we don't fix it, we could be trapped on Earth

You can always tell where humans have been and space is no different. We’ve sent satellites, rockets, shuttles, and probes into orbit around the Earth and we have a habit of leaving junk behind. In 2011, NASA released a worrying report that the amount of space debris was rising exponentially. This is such a serious problem for space missions that the International Space Station occasionally has to take evasive action. If the amount of debris in Earth’s orbit continues to increase, we could be walled in by our own junk. Dr Stuart Grey, University College London, created a video using real data to show how the amount of space debris has increased from 1957 to 2015.

Vitaly Adushkin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow has recently published a paper claiming damage from space junk could provoke conflict between nations. Sometimes defense satellites mysteriously stop working. If this happens, is it because some unknown space junk has destroyed the satellite? Or has a rival nation targeted the satellite? Would that be an act of war? With extreme tension and paranoia, Adushkin predicts that an innocent incident involving space junk could be mistaken as an attack and lead to conflicts. It’s also worth asking who is accountable if the damage is caused by space debris. There’s so much up there that it’s often impossible to know who a particular piece of debris belongs to. Sometimes it’s more obvious; China destroyed one of its own weather satellites in 2007 using a missile. This act created thousands more pieces of debris that Russia claims caused damage to one of their own satellites in 2013.

Space junk can also be a concern for those of us with our feet firmly on the ground. Small pieces of debris burn up readily in the atmosphere, but the largest pieces can crash to Earth. Space junk crashes to Earth at an alarming rate. Japanese sailors were injured in 1969 when space junk crashed onto their ship. The image to the right shows the upper-stage of a rocket used to launch a US GPS satellite into orbit back in 1993. It re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere 8 years later, landing in a Saudi Arabian desert. In 2007, a pilot witnessed debris from a Russian surveillance satellite fall near the commercial Airbus A340 he was flying. The pilot predicted that it was about 5 miles away but the sonic boom he heard reveals that it must have been closer than he realised.

Space debris is going to get worse if we ignore it. Tiny debris is a real issue and a fleck of paint can cause damage when it travels at 30,000 mph. The larger pieces of junk are easier to avoid but they still run the risk of colliding and greatly increasing the number of smaller pieces. The European Space Agency does have plans in place to start tackling the problem. Historically, satellites have been left in orbit when they are no longer required or they break down. The ESA is pushing forward with e.Deorbit: a mission to retrieve derelict satellites. After attaching itself to a satellite, e.Deorbit would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up both e.Deorbit and the satellite. SpaceX is actively trying to avoid making matters worse by designing reusable rockets that won’t leave parts in orbit.

Image © Joe Heller

It seems we litter wherever we go. The Russian report on the state of our space debris comes at the same time that other reports reveal the worrying state of our oceans. A report presented at the World Economic Forum last week claims that we dump the equivalent of a full garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If predictions are correct, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. It looks like we’re making Earth a horrible place to be so we should probably leave. That is, if we can get through the cloud of space debris above us.

Main image © ESA