Written by: Sam Hoober
The stars are beautiful to behold from Earth but if one were to slip the surly bonds of this planet, they would find themselves surrounded by a whole lot of space junk, also called space or orbital debris.
No One Can Hear You Litter
Orbital debris is left by previous space missions, such as pieces of spacecraft that broke off (like from a rocket stage separating) and other things. Astronauts have lost things, such as tool kits, cameras and, reportedly, a spatula. NASA has been aware of the worsening situation since the late 1970s and reports millions of pieces of space debris are in orbit at present. Most pieces are marble-size or smaller. Some 20,000 or more pieces are the size of softballs or larger. Compounding the problem is when debris collides with other debris; it breaks up and turn into multiple pieces.
All are traveling at speeds up to 17,000 miles per hour. Even paint particles can punch a hole in something, according to the Washington Post.
It’s already a danger; NASA reports two satellites already taken out by space debris, one in 1996 and the other in 2009, the latter an American Iridium communications satellite. The first was a French satellite. (There were rumors – entirely unsubstantiated – that it surrendered before impact). NewScientist.com reports Space Command (of the U.S. Air Force) records 13,000 near misses between satellites and debris every day.
It might be hard to use that GPS if something goes wrong.
What Is Being Done
Part of the problem is tracking the space junk. The current tracking system is an Air Force system from 1961, and it can only pick up those aforementioned 20,000 pieces of debris, due to how small many pieces are. Lockheed Martin, according to Bloomberg, was just awarded a $915 million contract for a better tracking system, which should pick up ten times as much debris and thus be able to move satellites out the way of debris. The system will be installed in the Marshall Islands, with construction slated for 2018.
Images from Space.com