Space junk is becoming one of the biggest pollution disasters faced by mankind, with experts warning it could take a human catastrophe before the issue is taken seriously.
More than half a million pieces of debris are zooming around the earth at about 17,500mph, 10 times the speed of a bullet – although some estimates say it could be upwards of about 900,000.
The junk includes defunct and broken bits of satellite and items lost by spacewalking astronauts including a spatula, tool bag, camera and glove, and even crystallised human urine.
This has been floating around from the days before waste recycling systems were introduced that convert urine it into clean, drinkable water.
Experts told i that the rubbish threatens future missions, and if humans continue to throw more trash into orbit then it could make space inaccessible – or worse.
“I don’t think people are going to take it as seriously as they should until a human gets hurt in space,” said John Crassidis, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Buffalo in New York, who works with Nasa and the US Air Force on the issue.
“It’s going to get to a point where in low earth orbit the probability of collision is going to be so big that putting something up there is going to be useless.”
Carolin Frueh, associate professor at the School of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Purdue University in Indiana, likened the issue to the pollution of our oceans where debris “is just floating around”.
She said: “I think it (space debris) is becoming one of the biggest pollution disasters, knowing what we do on earth and knowing how big the problems are here.”
Nasa is tracking about 28,000 objects larger than 10cm that are currently orbiting the earth, but much of the debris is too small to follow.
Despite the small size of these items, they are large enough to cause serious damage if they were to collide with other objects, as they travel at extremely high speeds. “It doesn’t take much to wipe out a satellite,” Professor Crassidis said.
Last month, Russia came under fire for launching a missile at one of its defunct Soviet-era satellites at about 500km altitude, which resulted in the creation of more than 1,500 pieces of debris, according to the US Space Command, and potentially hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments.
The fallout from the anti-missile test now threatens the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), according to US officials.
“Needless to say, I’m outraged. This is unconscionable,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said at the time. “It’s unbelievable that the Russian government would do this test and threaten not only international astronauts, but their own cosmonauts that are on board the station.”
Professor Frueh said it could take a decade before those pieces come down naturally. “The higher the altitude, the longer the pieces stay in orbit,” she added. “It’s unnecessary, and creating that much debris at 500km altitude, it just made me sad.”
Anti-satellite tests have been done before. They were common during the Cold War era, which was followed by a period of tranquillity until a Chinese test in 2007, at about 850km altitude, created countless pieces of debris. The ISS had to dodge one that came dangerously close just last month.
India launched anti-satellite missiles in 2019 destroying a test satellite at 300km altitude, although it caused less debris than the Chinese event.
These missions have been used by nations to show off their capabilities, Professor Crassidis said, adding: “People like to flex their muscles, I think it’s incredibly irresponsible and incredibly stupid.”
There are no international treaties to stop these kinds of missions, and no penalties for nations that trash space. Space agencies have made some efforts to remove debris, but experts point out that these are only at a testing phase and there is currently no feasible method to get rid of the junk in any meaningful way.
Professor Frueh said existing removals only deal with about “three or four pieces a year”.
The problem is growing worse with the rise of commercial and scientific space-faring, and developing nations adding more satellites into orbit. With more planned missions to the moon, there is a risk of trashing the cislunar region, between the Earth and the moon.
Scientists say the best thing the world can do now is to track and detect the debris and limit how much is thrown into space. As with climate change, it will fall on future generations to come up with the technology to solve the problem.
“It’s just our nature, right? ‘Let’s just put this off to our children’, that’s the classic way we think,” said Professor Crassidis. “I actually believe in 50 years if nothing is done we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”