The Current

Rocket ship parts, astronaut gloves and broken satellites: Space junk map shows dangerously cluttered orbit

A new map of the garbage humans have left in space shows the extent of the space junk problem, says Moriba Jah, an aerospace professor from The University of Texas at Austin — one that will take a dramatic shift in thinking about space to keep from getting worse.

Map shows 26,000 objects the size of a cell phone or larger

An artist's impression of space junk floating in orbit. An aerospace engineer from the University of Texas Austin is sounding the alarm about just how dangerously cluttered Earth's near space has become. (Miguel Soares, cc-by-sa-4.0)

Transcript

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2021

From a piece of gum stubbornly clinging to the sidewalk to the Quebec-sized flotilla of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, it's clear that human beings are not so great at picking up after ourselves. 

It turns out we're litterbugs in space, too, says Moriba Jah, an associate professor of aerospace engineering from The University of Texas at Austin, who maps the human-made garbage that's orbiting the Earth.

His team at the Oden Institute uses a "multi-source, crowdsourced database" that collects space images from sources ranging from the U.S. Department of Defense to individual satellite owner-operators. 

Since the Space Age began with the launch of Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957, there have been more than 5,000 rockets sent into space, with parts left orbiting the Earth, to which thousands of defunct satellites have been added. 

Of the approximately 26,000 objects big enough for humans to track — ranging in size from a cellphone to a space station — just 3,000 or so are things like satellites that are still in use, Jah told The Current host Matt Galloway.

Moriba Jah, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin's aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics department, has been mapping the human-made garbage that’s orbiting the earth. (Submitted by Moriba Jah)

The rest is a celestial hodgepodge of nuts, bolts and astronaut gloves that floated away during space walks, decommissioned satellites, rocket-ship parts and the Tesla that Elon Musk launched into space in a publicity stunt in 2018

The European Space Agency estimates there are around 166 million human-made objects in space, some as small as one millimetre.

Most of the mess is in what's called low Earth orbit, up to 1,200 kilometres in altitude, said Jah, who has a PhD in aerospace engineering sciences.

"As it turns out, the garbage is going at very high speeds," he said. "The relative speeds are 15 kilometres per second, so 15 times the speed of a bullet." 

That poses a whole lot of risk of junk colliding with things we're relying on to work — like satellites and spacecraft — and fixing the problem is going to take a shift in the way entrepreneurs, policy makers and the general public think about space, he said.

"So something the size of a cellphone hitting the space station at these high speeds will totally obliterate a whole section of the space station; we're talking likelihood of loss of human life as a consequence. If something the size of a cellphone hits one of these working satellites, that's probably game over for that satellite working."

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These kinds of collisions could compromise equipment we rely on for everything from GPS to disaster relief, satellite television to financial transactions, he said.

While no one knows exactly how often these collisions occur, Jah said former astronaut Susan Helms, who retired in 2014, told him "she would hear things dinging the side of the hull frequently, and that was a bit nerve-racking."

'Ticking time bombs' in space

Of course, aerospace scientists do take notice of larger-scale collisions in space. 

When an active commercial satellite Iridium 33 collided with inactive Russian satellite Kosmos-2251 in 2009, it "resulted in thousands and thousands of pieces of debris," said Jah.

Dead rocket bodies are "ticking time bombs" in space, some resulting in explosions that he likens to the pandemic's "superspreader events."

"When it goes boom, then that one object can easily become tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces."

Some fantastical sounding clean-up ideas have been proposed, including laser beams, harpoons and vacuums that suck up debris and disintegrate on their way back through Earth's atmosphere.   

Jah says these ideas could be part of the solution, but stewardship is what's most needed — especially given ambitious goals by companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX to build a network of 4,500 satellites.  

"The biggest contributor to the growth of space junk is actually lack of compliance with what scientists have said" about best practices to keep the space junk problem from escalating.

Jah says there are around 23,000 trackable pieces of space junk the size of a cell phone or larger posing a risk to critical satellite systems and the lives of astronauts. (Submitted by Moriba Jah)

Instead of treating space entrepreneurs as rock stars, people should hold them to account instead, Jah said. That involves engaging the public in understanding that while outer space may be infinite, "near-Earth space is a finite resource" equally deserving of conservation along with our forests and oceans.

"Then people can go and start exerting pressure on, you know, elected officials in that sort of stuff."

Jah notes that the focus now has to be on preventing the problem from getting much worse, given the challenges of scaling any of the technologies proposed for removing the space junk already out there.

"The really sad thing, man, about this is that people need to accept that space will never be clean," he told Galloway. 

"And so, at best, we have to learn to live in our current state of orbital filth."


Written by Brandie Weikle with files from Nicole Mortillaro. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

 

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