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Dealing with Space Junk: The Rocky Road Ahead

Dealing with Space Junk: The Rocky Road Ahead

In-orbit explosions can be related to the mixing of residual fuel that remains in tanks or fuel lines once a rocket stage or satellite is discarded in Earth orbit. The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of masses and imparted speeds. Credit: ESA
In-orbit explosions can be related to the mixing of residual fuel that remains in tanks or fuel lines once a rocket stage or satellite is discarded in Earth orbit. The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of masses and imparted speeds. Credit: ESA

Earth is encircled by an orbiting junkyard.

Following 50 years of space exploration and utilization, more than 22,000 pieces of space junk at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide are now being tracked in Earth’s orbit.

And hundreds of thousands to millions of bits of space flotsam are too small to be spotted with current tracking capabilities. Many of these tiny, fast-moving pieces are capable of crippling or taking out a spacecraft.

In October, for example, the International Space Station had to be maneuvered via Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle(ATV) to avoid a hand-size piece of Russia’s Cosmos 2251 satellite, which broke up after colliding with another satellite in 2009.

Any cleanup program will take years to implement and decades to carry out. To be sure, space junk is an international concern and will be the topic of many high-level discussions in 2015 and beyond.

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January 19, 2015


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