Space junk is one of the most pressing concerns and byproducts of our continued efforts as a civilization to increase the number of satellites and other tools used to assist and facilitate human technological progress.
This isn’t necessarily an issue that should surprise us, as humanity has been systematically and continuously fouling our own nest for decades now, ever since the rise of plastics in the mid 20th century.
Where once human civilization had a comparatively negligible effect on the planet and its ecosystems, the 20th century saw the rise of technology such as the car, and new materials such as plastic become so widespread that the inevitable result has been an extinction event unseen in thousands of years, with ecosystems in heavy and rapid decline, and many species dwindling and disappearing in the wake of our heedless need for more.
This same affliction has predictably followed mankind into space, and we have brought with us the same nasty habit of filling up space with an incredible amount of junk and debris which is increasingly becoming a serious concern for further space exploration and other operations regarding spaceflight.
In this guide, we’re going to look at space junk and our relationship with it, as well as what potential risks it poses and other interesting facts and concerns to help inform you about this latest worrying result of humanity’s headlong rush for progress and advancement.
But first, how much space junk is there?
It’s difficult to say for certain as not all of the records about space junk are easily accessible and not all of the information is particularly clear.
However, we have some ideas and the picture is quite worrying.
There is believed to be somewhere in the region of 27,000 pieces of orbital debris which are the result of human activity, a.k.a, space junk.
These 27,000 pieces are the main offenders which are big enough to be tracked and monitored by the Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensor system which tracks and monitors space debris and other orbital bodies.
However these sensors are only able to track the larger debris, and there are many smaller pieces of debris that are too minuscule to be tracked or monitored, but which still pose a significant risk to human manned spaceflight or even other remotely piloted missions, making this a significant problem with no clear or simple solutions.
Space junk can be made of various materials, from bits and pieces of scrap metal shorn away from rockets and other spacecraft and satellites, all the way up to defunct or malfunctioning satellites of significant size and weight.
The diagrams of space junk and the scale of the issue indicate that we are beginning to encase our planet in a growing shell of waste material, and it will be very difficult, or near impossible to deal with at a certain point.
Indeed, there is a risk that the more we attempt to escape our beautiful blue planet, the more we increase the chances of entombing ourselves upon it.
It’s a dire situation, however, are there other risks to space junk and what other things are there to know about it?
Has Space Debris Killed Anyone?
Right now, mercifully, the answer is no. As far as public records show, no one has been killed by space debris up to this point in time, and despite the significant scale of the problem, the chance of a craft hitting space junk or for space junk to fall back to Earth and harm someone is really very low.
It’s probably more risky to go outside without wearing sunscreen than it is to worry about a piece of a broken satellite crushing you to death.
The biggest risks to people are posed by the junk which remains in orbit, and as the orbits of these pieces of junk chance and decay, it can be nearly impossible to predict where junk may fall, or how it may eventually impact future space operations.
What Is The Largest Piece Of Space Junk?
It isn’t known what the largest piece of space junk is for sure, but there are a few contenders such as, a 2.9-ton package of old batteries which was jettisoned from the ISS in 2017, as well as various old and broken satellites which now drift and spin aimlessly above our planet, made redundant or broken or obsolete and left to simply decay forever.
Other contenders also include the boosters that take spacecraft up into space, such as a part of the Long March 5B rocket which was launched by China and which began falling to earth in early 2021.
The speed at which the debris was fell and the distances covered were so vast that predictions became impossible, and even though remote there was some concern about where the debris would eventually land although it seems as if it did eventually land somewhere without being detected.
Another famous large piece of debris was the remains of the SkyLab US space station which disintegrated over Australia in 1979 and peppered coastal towns in the west of the country with fragments and debris.
While there were no major issues, and it was largely met with some excitement and fun, as debris was sought out by space enthusiasts, it shows how dangerous space debris could be.
What Is The Oldest Piece Of Space Junk?
The oldest piece of space junk is believed to be the remains of the 1958 Vanguard 1 research satellite which ceased functioning in 1964.
Can You See Space Junk From Space?
Despite what sci-fi movies tell us, seeing anything in space is incredibly difficult.
If an astronaut was to drift just a few feet too far from the space station or their craft, it would be near impossible to see them with the naked eye, as the backdrop of space is so vast and so punctuated by various stimuli.
While its possible larger pieces of debris such as satellites may be possible to spot if close enough, the vast distances and incredible speeds involved in space travel and exploration makes spotting and tracking debris nearly impossible and only able to be done by an array of sensors and trackers managed by the Department of Defense.
Even large objects can be difficult to spot in space, even when up close, meaning its very difficult to spot junk while in space itself.
Where Is Most Space Junk Located?
The majority of the space junk above us is located in low Earth orbit, within the 2000km (1200 mile) radius of the Earth’s surface. There is a lot of space junk located out as far as 35,786km, however, or 22,236 miles, as this is the distance of geostationary orbit where many satellites and other junk is left to accumulate.