The Growing Problem of Space Junk

In 2014, the International Space Station had to move three times to avoid lethal chunks of space junk. It has increasingly become a matter of grave concern as it is now rising at a rapid rate.

The Growing Problem of Space Junk
the-growing-problem-of-space-junk

The Growing Problem of Space Junk

At some point or the other, we have all wondered if there's trash in space. Or at least wonder where do the satellites that are no longer in use go, since there are almost 5000 satellites in our orbit.

What is Space Junk

Space debris initially referred to the naturally occurring materials and substances like meteor particles, asteroids, and comet residue in the earth's orbit. But now it includes defunct satellites, rocket wastes, and other human-made wastes that occur in orbit.

With alternate names like Space Trash and Space Garbage, space junk has increasingly become a centre for concern as it is now rising at a rapid rate.

After NASA's Orbital Debris Program was launched in 1979, artificial wastes also came under this umbrella term of space debris. As of 2016, five collisions took place in the orbit, which was mostly between satellites that caused a large portion of the space debris.

Growing junk, growing concern

The United States tracked almost 18,000 identifiable pieces of objects in 2016, out of which nearly 1,500 were active satellites, and the other were pieces of debris large enough to be identified.

Currently, there are over 120 million pieces of debris between 0-1 cm, almost a million pieces of debris between 1-10 cm, and 35000 pieces of debris above 10 cm in our orbit. The numbers are staggering and rising sharply.

Due to their enormous orbital speed of 17,000 mph, each one of these objects carries with it the potential to damage or in worst case destroys the satellites that we now so heavily depend on.

In 2007, a chunk of space debris punched this hole in the radiator panel of space shuttle Endeavour

In 2007, a chunk of space debris punched this hole in the radiator panel of space shuttle Endeavour

In 2010, the space junk created by the Chinese satellite was orbiting so close to the International Space Station that astronauts onboard were advised to take shelter in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the station, lest the worst happened. In 2014, the International Space Station had to move three times to avoid lethal chunks of space debris.

There is a high possibility there could be other unidentified space junk we still have not discovered.

Causes

When China demonstrated the prowess of its anti-satellite missile in 2007 by shooting down a weather spacecraft, the US Orbital Debris Program Office dubbed it as 'the worst satellite breakup in history'. India successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon in March 2019. That drew sharp criticism from NASA for creating lots of space junk. 

The causes of space debris are widespread. It can range from simple rocket paint flakes and frozen coolant to dust forming rocks from rocket fans! It has raised eyebrows worldwide. Not only our planet, but our orbit is also being damaged at a rising rate.

Dead spacecraft is one of the leading causes of space debris. These are satellites and spacecraft that have been defunct and are no longer in use. Lost equipment also causes a lot of space debris. Articles carried by astronauts including gear and equipment, sometimes float away and are not able to be brought. 

Solution

Safe waste disposal is as important in space as it is on the surface of the earth. If not done properly, the repercussions can be alarming and damaging to both life and property.

Proper tracking and measurement of space junk is the need of the hour. It requires cooperation at a global level so that wastes in orbit can be reduced to a minimum by collective efforts throughout the world.

But is all of this sustainable and can space debris be controlled?  Maybe the next big space mission could be junk cleanup?