Satellites, residues of collisions, pieces of space rockets – almost 170 million space objects that weigh more than 180 tonnes, are orbiting above our heads. Some of them fell, but most are just creating a space landfill. Space debris is not the public’s favorite topic, though it can impend over space vehicles and everything on Earth. Over the years, “space collection” has grown a lot and become a severe problem. What exactly can we find among dumping site above our heads, how institutions and people tried to deal with it, what caused this problem, and how serious is it?

What Is Space Debris?

Following the definition, anything created by humans that revolves around the Earth that no longer performs the tasks planned is a part of space debris. Classical “space objects” and lost tools and other things lost by the International Space Station, containers, and almost a tonne of uranium. Not everybody knows that nearly 99%of these objects are smaller than a centimeter, and only 0.017% is bigger than ten centimeters.

Space Debris Around the Earth
Space Debris Around the Earth
Image Courtesy: NASA

The beginnings

The space debris problem started approximately in the 1980s, but the first debris ever created is Vanguard 1, the second American satellite orbiting Earth since 1958, mostly as a piece of junk. It was deactivated in 1964, but nobody took it down. Twenty years later, primarily because of technology development and some human activities in orbit, numbers were two times bigger, to finally grow to today’s situation.

History of Dealing With Space Junk

The history of dealing with debris also began in the ’60s, when the United States and the Soviet Union started testing ASATs (anti-satellite weapons). Unfortunately, ASATs didn’t solve the problem; they just made it more fragmented. By the 1990’s ASATs produced at least 1190000 small objects. The government and scientists often discussed the issue, but it is still far from a solution.

The Growth of Space Debris from 1957 to 2015
The Growth of Space Debris from 1957 to 2015
Image Courtesy: NASA

However, one of the exciting ways to deal with space debris is from the middle 1990s, when satellites started being miniaturized. Small satellites were cheaper, more refined, and created less mess than their precursors. That did not solve the problem of increasing landfill or debris that existed, but it could reduce its production. Unfortunately, that did not work, and the whole project finally failed in 2014.

The Growing Problem

Dangers for the People

So, why exactly space debris is dangerous, you may ask. Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, space objects can get into the atmosphere and fall on our heads. Falling pieces are usually tiny and burn before they reach the ground. However, some dangerous situations involved falling debris. For example, a piece of rocket propeller from a satellite launch fell and exploded in China two years ago.

Over the years there's been more and more dangerous situations involving space junk
Over the years there have been more and more dangerous situations involving space junk
Image Courtesy: The Sun

Problems with the Earth’s Orbit

Even small pieces of debris can disrupt every kind of signal. Not to mention that debris pieces can destroy working satellites or collide in space. In 1996 a French satellite CERSEI was broken by a piece of trash. This kind of situation is a vicious circle – broken objects become new, smaller pieces of debris, which doesn’t make them less dangerous. “The point which is of importance is that even microscopic debris, because of the speed at which it travels, if it hits another body, or working satellite, would make it exploding, creating a cloud of debris. So even small debris is of importance,” says Luisa Innocenti, the head of ESA’s Clean Space Office.

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Possible Solutions

Space Agencies Strategies

These days many space agencies try to solve the problem of debris. ESA’s engineers monitor the situation on the orbit and warn European authorities. In April 2018, the RemoveDebris satellite was launched aboard SpaceX Drago. Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee presents itself as “… an international governmental forum for the worldwide coordination of activities related to the issues of man-made and natural debris in space.” It involves thirteen space agencies, including NASA, ESA, and ISRO. IADC includes four specialized working groups focused on measurement, protection, and debris mitigation.

Increasing Awareness

The subject of space debris wasn’t the most popular one in public. Lately, people started noticing it and talking it over. This increasing attention may be caused by more and more incidents, including space debris, new possible solutions to the problem, or space companies policy. It is a good thing because the mess on the ground is not the only one people cause. We need to remember that problem is still growing, and right now, there is no perfect solution, though people are working on the matter.

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