For 60 years since 1958, humanity has been launching rockets, satellites, and other impressive technology into space. In that period, over 8,950 satellites have been launched into the orbit, but only about 1,950 remain operational today. These non-functioning yet orbiting satellites are joined by millions of bits of debris – known as space junk. This term refers to any non-functioning piece of hardware orbiting our Earth comprising anything from non-functioning satellites to the used fuel stages of rockets.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network, there are over 128 million individual pieces of debris that measure between 1 mm and 1 cm. However, only 22,000 objects can be tracked from Earth as the rest are too small. Even these tiny bits can be hazardous, especially with the increasing amount of missions launched into space. The hazard is due to their incredibly high speeds of over 12,000 km/h which upon impact can damage satellites, spacecraft or space stations. Furthermore, the problem can get worse on its own due to the Kessler Effect. This phenomenon occurs when two pieces collide in space and potentially break apart to produce even smaller pieces, thus exponentially increasing the size of the debris field.
To worsen the situation, private companies such as Space X have plans to launch up to 30,000 satellites in the future. However, they are not alone, as several other companies such as Amazon and Facebook have similar projects to launch individual satellite constellations as well. Fortunately, this is a recognised issue and nations around the globe are forming agreements and exploring innovative concepts to mitigate this problem for the safety of future spaceflights.