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The inconvenient truth about ‘space junk’ and why you should care

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What goes up must come down, right? When it comes to space satellites, that’s not always how it works. And that’s a problem.

In 2009, Matt Desch, CEO of satellite company Iridium, got a phone call. "I have bad news and worse news," the company's chief satellite officer told Desch. "The bad news is that we lost one of [our] satellites, the worse news is that it may have been run into by something else."

That "something else" was a defunct Russian satellite. Left out in Earth’s orbit while no longer serving any function, the satellite had turned into what space environmentalists call orbital debris or "space junk."

The dangers that space junk causes our planet and the area around it is a different kind of inconvenient truth – one that could wipe out some communications on Earth or make it nearly impossible to fly any new satellites or humans off of it.

There are more than 20,000 softball-sized or larger pieces of orbital debris, or space junk, in Earth's orbit. That figure includes huge objects like out-of-commission satellites and used rockets, but it balloons to more than half a million if we’re counting marble-size pieces or larger and millions upon millions if we’re talking tiny scraps.

Orbital debris rounds the earth at up to 17,500 miles per hour, so even a piece the size of a flake of paint can send an operational satellite spinning.

Space Debris in Motion

Don Kessler, the former NASA scientist who first brought attention to the problem of space junk in the 1970s, told Circa that small orbital debris collisions happen about "100 times a year" these days.

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Kessler foresaw the modern orbital debris problem roughly 30 years before the 2009 collision between the Iridium 33 and the Russian Kosmos-2251, which was the first ever hypervelocity impact between two satellites.

“Our calculations are that you’d expect a cataclysmic event, like Iridium, once every 10 years,” Kessler explained.

Orbital debris damage to the Space Shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)
Orbital debris hit Space Shuttle Endeavour’s radiator during one of its missions. (Credit: NASA)

Space debris historian Lisa Ruth Rand told Circa that that the communications effects of the 2009 satellite collision weren’t major because Iridium had backups in space, but the next large orbital debris-satellite collision could very well cause some interruptions on Earth.

"If a major space debris event happened, we’d likely begin to notice in little ways … when our cell phone calls don’t work, when we have navigation problems, when we can't take money out of the ATM" said Rand.

Once-in-a-blue-moon collisions between a satellite and a large piece of orbital debris isn’t the entire problem, though. For every impact in space, thousands of new pieces of space debris are created - a phenomenon that Kessler wrote would continue to be a problem even without the addition of any new objects to space.

Don Kessler / Wired
In 1970, Donald Kessler published the earliest writings on the growth of orbital debris. The now-retired NASA scientist still keeps an eye on the problem. (Credit: Wired / Anna Knott)

It's Kessler's work that still today guides the space environmentalism practices of public organizations and private companies.

Years ago, satellites capable of de-orbiting themselves after retiring started being blasted into space. Iridium CEO Matt Desch told Circa he and his company are try to be "good stewards of space," in the replacement process of his company's constellation of satellites, which is the largest circling the Earth.

"We’ve moved four satellites already into lower Earth orbit, and we’ve used their fuel to bring them down," said Desch.

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The Iridium constellation upgrade began this January, but one of the replaced satellites has already burned up in Earth's atmosphere, the current norm for doing away with non-reusable, used space technology.

Iridium’s time frame for de-orbiting does much better than the 25-year rule that Kessler developed for removing satellites out of orbit after end-of-life.

But the now-retired NASA scientist believes today that a bit more than mitigation of future space junk needs to be done.

“We have reached a point where we will have to remove objects," he told Circa. "What it boils down to is that roughly 500 objects need to be removed within the next 100 years.”

It’s a plan that’s easier said than done. Most recently, Japan’s test of a tether system for grabbing and slinging orbital debris back into earth’s atmosphere failed this February. And plenty of other ideas like it have yet to even get off the ground.

Kessler, who’s been gazing up at orbital debris for decades, said there’s certainly no quick fix for the cosmic environmental problem. But he’s encouraged to see organizations engaging internationally.

"Things are moving."

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