There are about 22,000 large objects orbiting the Earth, including working and broken satellites and bits of old rocket from past space expeditions. If you include all the equipment dropped by astronauts while floating in space and the debris from colliding satellites down to around 1 centimeter in size, there are about one million bits of space junk in Earth’s orbit.
Among Elon Musk’s many plans for the future, one of the more ambitious has been the creation of a constellation of satellites that will offer broadband internet access to the entire world. Known as “Starlink”, the company’s long-term plan is to deploy over 12,000 internet satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by the mid-2020s.
Last summer, a new type of debris-hunting satellite was released from the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as the RemoveDebris spacecraft, a technology-demonstrator developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and the Surrey Space Center. The purpose of this satellite is to test whether satellites equipped with targeting software, a debris net and a harpoon are effective at combating space debris.
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Since the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have been sending more and more stuff into orbit. Between the spent stages of rockets, spent boosters, and satellites that have since become inactive, there’s been no shortage of artificial objects floating up there. Over time, this has created the significant (and growing) problem of space debris, which poses a serious threat to the International Space Station (ISS), active satellites and spacecraft.
Hundreds of millions of pieces of space junk orbit the Earth daily, from chips of old rocket paint, to shards of solar panels, and entire dead satellites. This cloud of high-tech detritus whirls around the planet at about 17,500 miles per hour. At these speeds, even trash as small as a pebble can torpedo a passing spacecraft.
Orbital debris, otherwise known as “space junk”, is a major concern. This massive cloud that orbits the Earth is the result of the many satellites, platforms and spent launchers that have been sent into space over the years. And as time went on, collisions between these objects (as well as disintegrations and erosion) has created even more in the way of debris.
A piece of debris just 10cm in diameter could cause an entire spacecraft to disintegrate and it is estimated that there are more than 29,000 objects larger than 10cm in Earth’s orbit. This poses a major risk to the spacecraft to-ing and fro-ing from the International Space Station, not to mention the hundreds of satellites that are now essential to daily lives.