Space exploration originally started in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, our first ever artificial satellite. Since then, there have been numerous human spaceflight launches. We have launched over thousands of rockets and satellites into space. We have been successful in many of our space missions and we have made a great number of discoveries from space. However, as our missions to outer space increase, so does the problem of “space junk”. This is a term we have been hearing a lot more frequently on news channels or various articles. So what exactly is “space junk” and why is it bad?
What is Space Junk?
Space junk is a general term that refers to any man-made debris that is currently orbiting our Earth and floating around in space. It can range from disused satellites to solidified liquids that have been expelled from spacecrafts. As of today, there are about 2,000 satellites orbiting Earth and 3,000 satellites that are inactive and dead. This is a lot of metal that is floating around and littering our orbit.
Why Is Space Junk Bad?
As of 2021, it has been noted that there are more than 15,000 pieces of space debris out there. This means that over 15000 pieces of metal hardware from the remains of various spacecrafts and satellites are bolting around the Earth at extremely high speeds. They are known to be racing ten times faster than a bullet. Such hard metals zooming around at high speeds are bound to collide with incoming spacecraft. It has proven to be a hazard to our current and future space-based explorations and operations.
With the number of explorations and space missions we have planned for the future, this problem is only going to get worse from here. Space is only going to get more and more crowded which means that more junk from our satellites and rockets will start accumulating the orbits of planets. This is posing a serious threat to Earth’s orbit and it could start the Kessler Syndrome.
As referenced in the movie ‘Gravity’, the Kessler Syndrome is a phenomenon said to occur when the amount of space junk in orbit around the Earth becomes too high. Due to this, more space junk collides with satellites which in turn creates more space debris. It is almost like a chain reaction of sorts. Even the tiny collisions could have catastrophic impacts on the current or incoming spacecrafts. This creates a huge amount of space debris and it could even be too big to the point that it causes the Earth’s orbit to become unstable.
How Big of a Problem Is Space Junk?
To what extent does space debris actually affect our exploration? While it doesn’t hinder our space travel, space junk still pollutes the environment in space. Every satellite or spacecraft we launch has the potential to turn into space debris after a period. One of the main concerns that astronauts have is that space junk can interfere with their telescope observations. Space trash can range from exploded batteries to small flecks of nuts and bolts and this causes a lot of light pollution. Light pollution is known to disrupt the images produced by telescopes as they affect the quality of the images.
Aside from affecting space exploration, the debris is also known to affect the Earth’s atmosphere. After a certain point, a chunk of the space debris that is present in the low Earth orbit will lose its altitude. Once this happens, the Earth’s atmosphere will start heating up. Some of the debris contains extremely toxic substances coming from fuel residue such as carcinogens and polymers. These are known to affect the plants and animals present on Earth. The polymers produced also have a role in depleting our ozone layer.
What can be done to prevent this?
Are there any measures we can take to cleanup the debris or even avoid it together as a whole? A bunch of different space agencies have partnered up together to build technologies that can remove space junk. The European Space Agency (ESA) has come up with an initiative known as ClearSpace that is focused on creating technologies that will clear the debris stuck up in space. They are also developing technologies that can avoid the explosions of spacecrafts altogether. By tackling the root problem of space debris, we can significantly clear up Earth’s orbit.
The United Nations has also proposed that all space agencies remove their satellites after a certain period to avoid the degeneration of these spacecrafts. Prevention of space debris is a tricky process that scientists all over the world are working towards. By 2025, we should be seeing quite a few technologies launched that will help in cleaning up the space junk and ensuring that the Earth’s orbit is cleaner and easier to monitor.
If you enjoyed reading this and want to learn more about our galaxy, check out our other blog post on our Milky Way: Journey to the Center of The Milky Way.