Danger of Spacejunk

Ethan Wong

September 9, 2022

Debris in space is a problem. According to NASA, there are more than 27000 pieces of space junk and debris detected by the Department of Defense Space Surveillance Network. Within this abundance of pieces, around 23000 pieces are larger than a softball and are currently surrounding planet Earth, actively traveling along its orbit. Flying at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, these pieces of spacecraft and scraps can be a huge threat to humans during space travel, as well as stationary zones like the ISS in low-orbit Earth (where debris can travel up to velocities as high as 15,700mph). NASA and many other space companies take this issue seriously, as it proposes a danger to both astronauts and billions of dollars worth of spacecraft that could become compromised from these flying bits of clutter.  

This space junk is essentially broken down bits of spacecraft that had previously been launched into space. For instance, dead satellites that failed to withstand the brutal conditions of space and eventually tore apart, or stages of rockets left in orbit that began to add to the clutter of debris over time are examples of how space junk is typically created. And although this debris is traveling around the Earth over 100 miles from the surface, it still consumes the tiniest of ozone from the Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry when the metals that the debris is ultimately made from, release its ozone-erasing chemicals.

Nearly a decade after a french rocket exploded in space, a french satellite was hit and damaged by swarms of debris in 1996. Later on February 10th, 2009, a no longer operational Russian spacecraft collided with a U.S. commercial communications satellite, adding over 2300 pieces of destroyed spacecraft bits to the collection. Many space shuttles’ windows have also been pelted with this type of debris, leading NASA to question the amount of problems space debris will eventually create, as more build up, and future missions with greater importance and cost will need to be executed. These are all examples of possible dangers that could come in the future to living astronauts. In fact, the ISS sits in a very dangerous spot, and NASA has created safety protocols for the people living aboard if detections of debris were predicted to hit the station. “Escape pods” such as the Soyuz capsules are available for astronauts in a critical emergency, and NASA will occasionally move the ISS if they have early notice. 

An idea was proposed by a scientist at NASA named Donald Kessler, who theorized that if enough debris had built up around the Earth’s region in space, it would create a “loop”, where space junk would collide with spacecrafts, which would create more debris in the process. Although this situation is unlikely and would take a long time to build up, he theorized that it could limit or even stop the ability of space companies to launch anything into orbit. Stopping space debris from continually growing is quite a difficult task. While humans living normal lives on the planet cannot contribute, nor do anything to help stop this problem, the United Nations has proposed to have every company remove their satellites from Earth’s orbit 25 years after completing its mission. However, many space companies have created innovative and extremely creative solutions to trash their satellites back into the atmosphere, such as giving it more atmospheric drag by shooting them with lasers, to using magnets and nets.