- Space junk is trash that has been left in space. Sometimes referred to as space debris.
- While meteoroids are a concern, they typically aren’t factored into the space junk problem.
- Despite the large volume of junk in space, you don’t need to be worried about getting hit with items coming out of orbit.
While space isn’t the next landfill, it hosts a surprising amount of trash. Humans have been leaving their junk in orbit since October 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik.
Space junk is difficult to avoid since disposable pieces, like rocket stages, are important to space travel. But, with more and more equipment going into orbit there is increasing concern over the amount of space junk leftover from various endeavors.
The trash in space has been gathering since the 1950s but has become more concerning lately with the growing number of launches.
So, what is space junk, and should you be worried about getting hit by some?
What is Space Trash?
Space trash is exactly that- trash left in space. It is sometimes called space junk or, in more formal settings, orbital debris.
It’s not like people are launching their trash into space though, so it is made almost entirely of materials left over from things like spacecraft and satellites. There are some more familiar pieces of junk though, like gloves and tools that astronauts have lost.
Space junk is made of various items, like launch canisters, paint flakes, and other pieces of equipment that get left in space. One of the most common items is rocket stages, which makes sense since they detach after firing.
While meteoroids are a concern, they typically aren’t factored into the space junk problem. That has to do with the fact that meteors are not man-made but also because they orbit around the sun, not the Earth.
How Much Space Debris is There?
According to NASA, more than 27,000 items of debris are being tracked. Additionally, there are around 23,000 items larger than a softball orbiting Earth. Many other pieces are too small to be tracked.
The group that holds the record for contributing the most to space trash is the commonwealth of independent states, which includes Russia, Belarus, and multiple other countries. Junk the CIS has left in space accounts for around 40% of the debris in space.
Because of how much debris there is and how there are more and more launches each year, people are getting increasingly worried about the risks.
Has Anyone Actually Been Hit With Space Junk?
Despite the large volume of junk in space, you don’t need to be worried about getting hit with items coming out of orbit. This is because the odds of you getting hit are extremely low. In fact, in the next 10 years, there is only an estimated 10% chance that someone will die from being hit with debris from space. With more rockets and equipment entering orbit there is a rising risk but it isn’t a concern currently.
To date, only one person has been hit with space trash. Lottie Williams was hit by a piece in 1997 while walking through the park in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She initially thought it was someone tapping on her shoulder and wasn’t hurt at all. The debris was about the size of her hand and is suspected to have come from a Delta II rocket.
No one else has ever reported being hit with space junk. However, it occasionally falls, and components have landed in areas like Maldives and Malaysia. Most often, debris from space lands in an extremely remote area of the ocean known as the spacecraft cemetery.
Space Junk In The Ocean
Point Nemo sits more than 1,000 miles from any civilization and is considered the most remote point in the world. Because of that, many pieces of equipment end up there when they reenter the atmosphere. Even the International Space Station will end up there when it is set to decommission in 2030.
This spacecraft cemetery has gathered an impressive amount of equipment over the years. However, the point is so far away from land that there is little to no worry about people, boats, or equipment being damaged.
Is Space Junk A Problem?
There is a potential for space junk to be damaging, not only to people but also to buildings and environments. Current research suggests there is a 1% chance of falling debris to damage property or land.
The main concern with orbital debris currently is that it will crash into and damage operating equipment. However, the biggest problem on that front isn’t the large pieces but the small, untrackable debris.
Don’t Sweat The Small Junk
Because orbital debris can travel up to 17,500 mph, there is some concern over small junk causing damage to satellites or other equipment that is active. Even debris as small as paint pieces have been known to cause damage to space shuttle windows.
Unfortunately, small pieces are also much harder to track. Pieces of trash that are smaller than a softball are particularly difficult to track. Thankfully, there is no concern about such small items causing damage as they fall out of orbit. That is because most small pieces burn up when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. So there is no chance you will be hit with a paint chip from outer space.
Space Junk Safety Protocols
Because there is concern about trash in space damaging equipment like the International Space Station, NASA had to develop guidelines for dealing with debris.
In the case of the ISS, the guideline includes an estimated area of safety around the station. If debris is projected to enter the area the station may move slightly as an avoidance maneuver.
These operations are very important and have been used before. The ISS has had many near misses with orbital debris and has been damaged before.
In one case the station had a robotic arm that was damaged by an unknown piece of junk but the damage was minor and the arm continued to function. On another occasion, a piece of debris hit and damaged a window on the ISS. These issues are uncommon but clearly illustrate why space junk can be a very dangerous problem.
Space Debris Tracking
Many organizations are actively tracking the large pieces of debris left in space. One of the largest groups tracking space junk is the U.S. Department of Defense. They run a program that not only tracks where items are currently, but also predicts where they will be. This allows them to know if any debris will enter the atmosphere and where it might fall.
Tracking space junk also allows organizations to know if large pieces of debris will collide with active equipment. This is especially important to keep vital infrastructure, like GPS and wifi, working properly.
You Too Can Track Space Junk!
There are now various apps and websites where the public can see where debris is in orbit. One of the most popular trackers is Wayfinder by a company called Privateer. The site allows hobbyists and lobbyists alike to keep an eye on the many pieces of junk in space.
Is There a Solution to Space Junk?
Long-term solutions to space junk are still being explored. Some potential options include making equipment that is designed to disintegrate on reentry and keeping more equipment attached to the spacecraft instead of letting it stay in space.
Gathering junk with something like nets has also been considered. Some people are even excited about the potential of lasers to help in the fight to reduce orbital debris.
Give Space Junk Space
Another potential option is to have the equipment, like satellites, save fuel and propel themselves further out into space as they are nearing the end of their life. While this might seem counterintuitive, it might work because Earth’s low orbit is where most junk currently exists. By leaving the machinery further out in space it lowers the odds that equipment will enter Earth’s gravitational pull and fall.
This topic is difficult because of how rockets and other equipment have to be factored into fuel needs in space travel. Currently, rockets will fire and expend their fuel before breaking away from the craft.
While many of the spent rockets fall into areas like the spacecraft graveyard, some end up staying in orbit. Allowing the used equipment to fall away, dramatically impacts the fuel needs of spacecraft.
While the result likely won’t be as dramatic as something like giant lasers, there are many options being explored. It will likely take a lot of time to find a suitable alternative or solution.
Should You Be Worried About Space Junk?
In short, no, you shouldn’t be worried about space junk falling and hurting you or your property. However, the increasing amount of trash is somewhat concerning since it can damage satellites and other equipment that improves our daily lives.
Space travel is changing and improving every day. It is likely that a way to reduce orbital debris will be found in the future. In the meantime, there is no reason for the average person to be worried about getting hit by space junk.
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