Why Space Junk Orbiting the Planet Could Cause Problems
By Emily Gu
In late April, China launched a gigantic rocket into space. 10 days later, its empty fuel booster dropped back to earth. Fortunately, it landed in the Indian Ocean, not harming anyone.
While nobody has been hit by falling space junk yet, it can cause other problems for us. Specifically, the space junk still in orbit.
Orbiting space junk can jam satellite signals and generally cause problems for them. Thankfully, scientists have thought of some solutions for this.
Human-made satellites are pieces of technology, launched into orbit to do different things, like collect information or broadcast signals.
Currently, about 4,500 active satellites are in orbit, while there are 3,000 satellites that have stopped working, according to the European Space Agency. (ESA)
Soon, there will be many, many more satellites in orbit, all designed to bring internet service to remote locations. While this sounds nice, it will also mean more space junk after they have stopped working.
NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense constantly monitor the satellites, keeping track of how much space junk is in orbit. They only keep track of space junk larger than a softball. Anything larger than that counts as well.
They estimate about 23,000 individual pieces of space junk are orbiting Earth.
While it may seem like the pieces of space junk will fall out of orbit quickly, it doesn’t. The momentum will keep them on a steady path around Earth for years.
Travelling at about 28,000 km/h, the tiniest flecks of paint can damage a spacecraft or a satellite.
Once, in 2011, NASA warned the ISS that there was space junk directly in their course, about to collide. Since they were unable to get out of the way by changing their course, the astronauts prepared to evacuate.
The debris missed the space station by the width of a football field. A direct hit would have completely wrecked the station.
Space junk in low orbit will eventually fall to Earth and burn up. But, waiting for space to clean up itself would take many, many years.
A company based in Montreal announced plans for a small fleet of satellites, which would track space debris more efficiently than methods based on Earth.
Other countries have also developed possible solutions, but scientists say that the best way to get rid of space junk is to leave none in the first place.