In a galaxy far far away…
Luke Skywalker just ended the Battle of Yavin when he obliterated the Death Star by firing two proton torpedoes into the exhaust shaft that led straight to its main reactor. The violent explosion lit up the black void of space and ripped the Death Star apart until all that remained was a debris field hovering ominously over the jungle moon.
The destruction of the Death Star had many impacts:
- It was truly a major victory for the Rebel Alliance who had been vigilantly fighting the Galactic Civil War.
- It was so catastrophic that it shook the Empire to its core, spreading spectacular chaos through all ranks.
- And most of all, it managed to create a whole lot of space waste.
That’s right… I said a whole lot of space waste (way to go Luke).
According to NASA, the term space debris actually encompasses both natural particles (meteoroids mostly in orbit around the sun) and artificial particles (man-made debris mostly in orbit around the Earth).
NASA and the IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee) define space debris as any man-made object in orbit around the Earth that no longer serves a useful function.
Every year, hundreds of satellites are launched into space by cell phone, television, GPS receiver, and major communication companies. In addition to those eventually aging and failing satellites, there are even more that observe everything from weather and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to those that look away from Earth to study the stars. Regardless of their purpose, all satellites eventually wear out over time. They are really no different than the machines we have on Earth.
Abandoned launch vehicle stages
Modern space shuttles are actually piggybacking on several rockets stacked on top of one another. When space shuttles launch it usually takes more than one rocket to power them into space. The additional rockets are fired off in stages. The final stages, or upper stages, expel material from the spacecraft that can easily get trapped in the Earth’s orbit.
Some space shuttles use solid rocket fuel for propulsion since this type of fuel can remain in storage for long periods of time while also remaining reliable for short notice launches. Like the upper stages, these fuel containers detach and are left to float in Earth’s orbit.
Tiny flecks of paint
Millions of tiny pieces of paint may exist in the Earth’s orbit. Things such as heat when leaving the atmosphere or impacts with other particles can chip the paint free from launched satellites and other spacecraft.
Sure, it’s fun to watch the Battle in full swing, but think about all of the destroyed ship hulls and exploded machine particles floating around during and after the fight.
In on-planet battles, gravity would pull debris to the ground where it would become relatively avoidable, but in zero-gravity conflicts, chunks of the Death Star jazz lounge would be a major navigational risk if left to float freely in space.