Space Junk

Earth’s Congested Inner Orbit
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Mapping: Space Junk—Earth’s Congested Inner Orbit

Believe it or not, outer space—at least our portion of it—is crowded. Over 100 million pieces of objects made on Earth are circling the globe in low-Earth orbit. Among them are the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, but the vast majority is pieces of debris from collisions or discarded components of spacecraft and satellite launches. The result is an ever-accumulating traffic jam that must be navigated to preserve GPS functions, ATM withdrawals, weather forecasting, and television broadcasting, among other luxuries of modern life.

Not only does the overcrowding complicate future orbital missions and endanger astronauts, it also could impede space travel beyond low-Earth orbit deeper into the galaxy, making advancements in space exploration nearly impossible. What’s more, astronomers have begun to note the increase in light pollution that interferes with their observations of the night sky due to the density of satellite traffic, compromising their research.

How Big is the Junk?

A fleck of paint, thinner than a printed page of our magazine, famously chipped a window on the International Space Station.

About 26,000 pieces are larger than a softball and are tracked in real time.

Biggest Contributors to the Space Traffic Jam

1) Russia

2) United States

3) China

4) France

5) Japan

6) India

7) European Space Agency

8) Globalstar (US)

Orbital Free Fall

Debris travels at a speed so fast—seven times faster than a bullet—that it falls to Earth at exactly the same rate that the curve of the Earth falls away from the satellite. Put simply, something in orbit is actually always falling yet never hits the ground.

Global Governance

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the only widely adopted international treaty that addresses governance in outer space. It prohibits any nation from making claims of sovereignty outside our atmosphere, meaning activities in space are not under any particular nation’s legal or regulatory jurisdiction. As private companies such as SpaceX—which in January set the record for the biggest satellite constellation in orbit by launching sixty satellites in a single day—assume more aggressive orbital stances, the prospect of collisions between satellites from different countries makes this neutrality of space untenable. Some countries (Japan, for example, in February) are pledging to cooperate in addressing the challenge of space debris and are calling on other nation-states to do the same.

Monitoring and Managing the Junk

The US tracks orbital debris in real time through what is called Space Domain Awareness, forecasting potential collisions and alerting those involved for course-correction. But this alone will not be enough to accommodate the sheer volume of objects orbiting our planet; some degree of clean-up is in order if space exploration is to have a promising (and profitable) future.

In December 2019, the European Space Agency announced the establishment of ClearSpace-1, the world’s first-ever space-debris removal program, which will begin operations in 2025.

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Published: March 2, 2020