On October 4th, 1957, the world — and the space around it — changed forever. With the successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, the space age began. But this triumphant feat of engineering also launched a different type of problem – space waste.
What is space waste? According to NASA, it is defined as space debris that encompasses both natural particles (think meteoroids) and artificial particles (like the things those of us on Earth make). The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee further narrows this definition as any man-made object in orbit around the Earth that doesn’t serve a useful function.
In our decades of space exploration, we’ve launched more than 8,593 spacecraft around the world. From rocket ships to satellites and even cars, each launch leaves behind a piece of debris in orbit. That comes out to more than 170 million pieces of debris orbiting our planet, thousands of those pieces are slightly bigger than a softball. The U.S. Department of Defense, in collaboration with NASA, currently monitors about 50,000 of these objects, both small and large.
Space waste can stay in orbit for centuries so long as it’s above the Earth’s atmosphere. So far, the biggest and oldest surviving man-made debris is a piece of the American Vanguard 1 launched in 1958. And if we’re not careful, it’s theorized that the ever-colliding debris will cause disaster collisions.
Examples of Space Waste
There’s a lot more in our skies than stars and planets… including over 8,000 metric tons of waste. Russia is the largest contributor of space waste, with 6,512 objects in orbit. The U.S. follows close behind with 6,262 objects. So what is everyone hurtling into space?
Here’s just a short list of what you can find out in the deep beyond:
- Nonfunctional satellites from major communication companies
- Abandoned launch vehicle stages that were used to help spacecraft launch
- Solid-fuel rockets from space shuttles that detach and float in orbit
- Millions of tiny flecks of paint that chip away from the satellites/spacecraft
Effects of Space Waste
So what would happen if space debris collided into itself, or something else?
- Astronauts would be in danger because their suits aren’t designed to protect them from significant debris
- The International Space Station would be at risk for severe damage as it needs time to coordinate a change in position
- Satellites crashing or falling from space could cause loss of cell phone communications, GPS, internet and coordinated airfare
- Even worse, as debris collides with other space waste it creates more waste!
14 Space Waste Facts
Fact 1: On February 6th, 2018, Elon Musk and his company SpaceX launched the first car into space. Elon’s personal Tesla Roadster is on an infinite loop of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” You can even track its location here.
Fact 2: In 2007, China deliberately destroyed one of their weather satellites to test a new weapon. That test contributed to over 3,000 pieces of space debris — the largest ever tracked.
Fact 3: A piece of space debris can reach speeds of 4.3 to 5 miles per second. That’s nearly 7 times faster than a bullet and just about the equivalent of being hit by a bowling ball moving at 300 miles per hour.
Fact 5: Donald Kessler, a NASA scientist, imagined what is now known as “Kessler Syndrome” in which he theorized that continuous collisions of man-made objects in space will potentially destroy telecommunications and keep humanity trapped on Earth.
Fact 6: On February 10, 2009, a privately owned American communication satellite, Iridium-33, accidentally crashed into a Russian military satellite, Kosmos 2251, marking the first ever accidental in-orbit collision.
Fact 7: In one year, the International Space Station had to coordinate three shifts in position to avoid disastrous collisions with space debris, a feat that requires days of effort.
Fact 8: In 1998, one satellite failed and more than 90% of all the pagers in the world stopped working, a sneak peek of the consequences that space debris could have if it collides with our technology.
Fact 9: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an average total between 200 – 400 tracked space debris enter Earth’s atmosphere every year.
Fact 10: Most of the debris burns up upon reentry, but if it doesn’t, don’t worry! Your chances of getting hit by a falling piece of space waste is 10 million times smaller than the annual odds of being struck by lightning.
Fact 11: Scientists in Beijing, China are working on a way to turn orbital waste into fuel by turning debris into a plasma of positive ions and electrons through high temperatures. Just picture the DeLorean in “Back to the Future.”
Fact 12: The U.S. Air Force is working on a program called Space Fence to help track the current amount of debris in orbit and extend a “virtual fence” around the planet.
Fact 13: The U.S. government logged 655 “emergency-reportable” alerts to satellite operators for potential collisions with space debris.
Fact 14: In September of 2018, scientists successfully tested a net to help snag orbiting debris and burn it in Earth’s atmosphere.
What’s Being Done to Reduce Space Waste
While international guidelines recommend that satellite operators remove spacecraft from low-Earth orbit (LEO) within 25 years after the craft’s mission, only 60% have done so. Even with these regulations, there’s still a lot more work that’s needed.
With space waste clean-up being an expensive endeavor, it’s often not seen as a priority amongst governments. But doing so could be highly valuable. With more than 3,000 dead satellites in orbit, there’s a lot of opportunities to explore recycling options. Each of those satellites and so many other pieces of space waste contain rare, expensive components.
With more private companies like SpaceX, Astroscale and remove Debris taking interest in the cosmos, more people are becoming interested in and aware of the need to reduce space waste.