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There are 300,000 pieces of garbage orbiting earth, and it's a big problem

There are 300,000 pieces of garbage orbiting earth, and it's a big problem

An illustration of space junk — not to scale.
An illustration of space junk — not to scale.

Right now, there are more than 300,000 pieces of debris larger than a centimeter in diameter orbiting Earth.

They range from tiny shards of metal to deactivated, decades-old satellites. Most are shrapnel from discarded rocket stages that have exploded after use, or satellites that have collided. Colloquially, all this debris is usually called "space junk."

Together, the Department of Defense and NASA track the orbits of the 19,000 or so pieces of junk that are larger than a softball, alerting satellite operators when any satellite — including the International Space Station — is in danger, so they can move it.

But doing so takes time and resources. What's more, the cloud of debris has been steadily growing over time, and some scientists worry that if we're not careful, we could trigger a chain reaction: More space junk raises the chance of collisions, which in turn can lead to even more debris, until the sheer volume of space junk makes parts of space unusable.

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January 20, 2015


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