When will humans learn to clean up after themselves? And it’s not just Earth I’m talking about. There are over 500,000 objects (trash) that now orbit Earth every day.
The trash — or space junk as it is known — began in 1957 when Russian scientists launched a tiny satellite called Sputnik into space. Shortly after the U.S. launched Explorer 1 effectively starting the “Space Race.”
The space junk is made up of 20,000 pieces of spent rocket parts, non-operational satellites, and debris that are larger than a softball. Not to forget the 500,000 objects the size of marbles being tracked by NASA.
As the objects hurtle around our planet at a breakneck speed of more than 17,000 mph, they collide into each other and satellites that are in use, creating millions more objects too small to be tracked.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield found a hole in one of the station’s huge solar panel arrays in 2013, tweeting:
Bullet hole – a small stone from the universe went through our solar array. Glad it missed the hull. pic.twitter.com/iBHFVfp1p8
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) April 29, 2013
Nearly every launch into space leaves its mark, from launch vehicles, objects falling off satellites, and even inadvertent collisions.
There were already 200 objects floating around space when the first human entered space, and by 1980 we had littered space with nearly 5,000 objects orbiting earth. Then, the quest for deep space exploration came, leaving entire rocket engines to float around.
The amount of space junk orbiting Earth held steady at around 9,000 until the Chinese tested a ballistic missile, which created 2,000 pieces of metal, adding more to the mix. Then, in 2009 two large satellites collided, adding another 2,000 pieces.
Watch this one-minute video by Stuart Grey that shows how much space junk has accumulated over a 58-year period:
According to NASA, pieces the size of paint flecks have been known to damage spacecraft, with a number of space shuttle windows having to be replaced after being damaged by these materials.
Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris, said: “The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris.”
Because of Earth’s gravity, space junk is prevented from floating off further into space, so when pieces collide and rip each other apart they are simply filling up our path to space.
As that path gets crowded with junk, it will start to have an impact on space travel as it will become too dangerous to travel through.
NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who lead NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, told Huffington Post in 2013: “The only way to [solve this problem] is to bring back the larger objects.”
Earlier this year Kessler was reported to have said: “If we’re going to do anything about this problem, then we better do it fast.”
“We’re at what we call a ‘critical density’ — where there are enough large objects in space that they will collide with one another, and create small debris faster than it can be removed,” Kessler told Marketplace in September.
Watch École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) video on how the Swiss Space Center plans to clean up their space junk:
Although there have been suggestions on how we can clean up our mess, there has yet to be any plans made to actually do it.