As of 2020, there were over 19,000 pieces of individually tracked space junk in orbit above the Earth. Of those, a mere 2,200 were operational satellites. As more and more satellites go up, the risk of collisions increases. And what are governments doing to stop it? Basically, nothing.
In addition to the 19,000 known pieces of space junk, there’s an estimated 15,000 pieces larger than 10cm across whipping around the Earth. There are an estimated one million pieces larger than a centimeter.
In 2007, the Chinese government conducted an anti-satellite missile test by launching a “kinetic kill vehicle” (essentially a rocket-fired bullet) at a defunct weather satellite. That single incident generated over 3,000 tracked and monitored pieces of space junk, many of which remain in orbit today.
On February 10, 2009 a communications satellite managed by the Iridium company collided with an old Russian military satellite. Both satellites were obliterated, leading to over 2,000 cataloged pieces of space junk.
As satellite-based internet companies continue to launch fleets of “mega-constellations” into orbit, the risk of collisions is only growing with time.
While the drag of our atmosphere can clean up some small pieces of space junk, we’re dangerously close to a tipping point. Called Kessler Syndrome, after the NASA scientist who first outlines the possibility, space junk collisions can cascade into more collisions, which generate even more junk, which generate more space junk, spiraling out of control until low-Earth orbit is completely inaccessible for a generation.
What do we do about all this space junk? Right now, not much. The US Space Surveillance Network (part of the Space Force) monitors space junk and issues warnings, but it’s up to the individual satellite operators to make decisions about maneuvers.
Proposals abound for cleaning up space junk, but all the solutions are costly and ineffective. The current worldwide strategy is to…launch and cross our fingers.