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Space junk is the abandoned equipment, trash, and broken parts left behind in space. They can be anything from deactivated satellites to an astronaut’s lost toothbrush. This junk puts littering into a whole new frontier.
It might seem easy to dismiss the potential problems posed by space junk. For starters, it’s all outside our atmosphere, so there is no immediate threat to the planet. It’s all in the vacuum of space, so there is little that can be really disturbed by the presence of our man made stuff; especially in a region of space that has natural debris such a meteors, asteroids, and space dust. If it comes to the worst most of the stuff would simply burn up in the atmosphere if their orbits decayed enough to be pulled in by the Earth’s gravity.
However, this thinking is dangerously nonchalant. If not dealt with effectively, space junk can present new and unnecessary challenges to future space exploration. The main reason is the speed of the objects in space. If you have ever been in a hurricane or tornado you know one of the things you are told to do is board up the windows of your home and try to keep indoors in an enclosed space. We know to do these things high speed winds can accelerate every object, turning them into lethal missiles. This is just with objects probably flying through the air at 200 km per hour. Think about being in a storm where objects could travel at 15,000 km per hour. You wouldn’t even be safe in the innermost room of your house. This is the potential danger to equipment and people posed by space junk.
The first space collision between space debris and functioning equipment just occurred this year over Siberia when a satellite was destroyed. Another problem is that whenever pieces of space junk collide, they create even more debris, which increases the chances of dangerous collisions. This is called the Kessler syndrome, and it raises a warning signal that the problem needs to be more aggressively resolved.
Fortunately there are already agencies monitoring space junk and looking for solutions. One of them is the US Strategic command which has already tracked 13,000 detectable objects. NASA also has an Orbital Debris Protection Agency that also helps with monitoring, and is working to protect craft and astronauts from space debris. Hopefully workable solution that mitigate the problem will develop.
If you liked this article there are others on Universe Today you might enjoy. Space debris illustrated is an article that shows in pictures the scope of the problem. Another great article is about low orbit where the majority of space junk resides.
There are other interesting resources on the web. You can go to the NASA Orbital Debris Protection website to see what NASA is doing to deal with the problem of space debris. Wired.com also has an interesting call about the International Space Station’s close call with space debris.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. You will definite like Episode 82 Space Junk.