Since the first launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 until today, man has sent thousands of satellites and rocket into orbit. Of these satellites, many are now out of service and are part of what is now labelled as ‘space junk’.
But satellites are not the only element to “pollute” the space, to them are added debris, fragments of rockets and much more.
Of course, it’s not a large amount of junk, but debris, fragments or machinery left by humans in space. Bolts, nuts, decommissioned satellites, gloves and even a Tesla Roadster S, are just a part of what we have left in space.
The ESA (European Space Agency) has estimated about 166 million man-made objects left behind in space. The calculations include objects as small as one millimeter even paint lost from rockets.
The active satellites in orbit are, at this time, about 2000, while those that have stopped being operational as many as 3000.
While this may be an “invisible” problem to us, it’s actually not. Fragments the size of a smartphone travel at a speed of about 15 km per second (15 times faster than a bullet) and this can be a big problem.
This space junk unfortunately coexists in the same areas populated by the vital infrastructure systems in the form of space stations or satellites that allow society to work by providing essential services such as GPS or telecommunication coverage.
If a piece of debris were to hit a satellite at that speed, needless to say, the service provided by it would most likely stop working.
More importantly, if instead of a satellite, the International Space Station (ISS) was hit, there would might even be a realistic possibility of loss of life.
Fortunately, collisions are very rare, but that doesn’t mean they should be underestimated.
The United Nations has mobilized to demand the removal of decommissioned satellites, directly from the agencies that launched them. Maximum time frame: 25 years from the end of operations.
Next-generation satellites, once decommissioned will drag themselves into the Earth’s atmosphere where they will burn up.
Other proposed methods of removing large objects from space include:
As for smaller objects, unfortunately there is no practical and inexpensive remedy. We will have to wait for them to enter the Earth’s atmosphere on their own. Most of it typically does, but not all.
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