According to General William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, there are well over 20,000 man-made junk objects floating around earth, collectively referred to as “detritus.” Those pieces of trash are just the ones that have been logged and are being tracked. According to Gen. Shelton, it is possible that at least 10 times that much is out there now; we just cannot detect it.
|Image credit: ESA.|
So where did all of this space junk come from? It is not just dust and rocks floating around, but actual pieces of satellites, missiles, and space ships floating around planet earth. 50 years in the space program is a lot of time for garbage to build up. Some of the pieces are satellites that served their purpose and either “died” or were deactivated, some are extra parts that fell off or were blown off of spacecraft, and still other pieces came from satellites that collided with other objects or were blown up intentionally by missiles, as in a fairly recent test by China (their anti-satellite or ASAT test) in 2007. The pieces of detritus can vary in size from just a few millimeters to a few meters across, and can be travelling at dangerously high speeds in a geosynchronous orbit around earth. This creates serious headaches for operators of live satellites, space shuttles, and the International Space Station, because all active instruments in space must alter their orbit and stay at least one mile away from every single piece of debris orbiting our planet. This computer generated graphic is meant to illustrate the approximate density of the garbage at this point.
A problem created by the 50 or so individual nations now involved in space exploration, it is impossible to point the finger at any one group for causing the mess. Therein lies the problem in getting cooperation for cleanup. If something is not done soon to either alter practices or make a serious effort to reduce the trash, experts project the amount of detritus to triple by 2030.