Man-made space junk a growing problem on and beyond Earth

Erin Collins
News Editor


Contrary to its calm and vacant appearance, outer space has become a busy place.

The region in close proximity to planet Earth is particularly crowded, with over 22,000 chunks of rockets, defunct satellites, and various other forms of human debris floating about in disarray. Unfortunately, this junk doesn’t drift off into the cosmos; many pieces lurk near well-functioning, billion dollar space technologies and pose long-term threats of collision and substantial damage. To make matters worse, frequent collisions are causing debris to rapidly multiply over time.

The increasing perils of space junk pose a particular threat to technologies utilized for communication, disaster management, and other important services. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) currently receives alerts almost every week from the US Strategic Command that their million-dollar satellites are in the route of a debris chunk’s destructive course.

In an effort to protect their satellites, CSA has recently taken to activating onboard “thrusters” to move them away from approaching space trash – an action they performed five times in 2011.

But as the heavens become increasingly cluttered, more drastic methods may be required to salvage functioning—and highly expensive—technologies. One solution currently being evaluated by engineers is the use of gigantic space tow trucks to travel around the planet and pick up debris. In addition, there is a now an international regulation that requires all satellites to possess the means by which they can be moved out into so-called “graveyard orbits” before they shut down.

Besides the damage of expensive property in the void above, there is another concerning consequence of growing space junk—one a little closer to home. On several instances, debris has fallen from the heavens and returned to Earth. In 1997, a woman jogging in Oklahoma was struck on the head by a chunk of material from a Delta 2 booster. She was unharmed.

In 2000, a whopping 13,227 pounds of debris from the deorbited Compton Gamma Ray Observatory plummeted into the Pacific Ocean, and in 2001, pieces from the 286,600 pound Mir Space Station fell around Fiji.

No one has been injured by falling space junk thus far. Unfortunately, the rate at which these objects return to Earth has increased drastically. Experts like NASA orbital debris scientist Mark Matney estimate that one piece of debris re-enters the planet every day.

A new and unique 3D film, titled Space Junk, hopes to raise awareness about the severity of this growing problem. After premiering on Jan. 13, it will be featured at science centres about the world in an effort to inform potential future targets of the dangers that lurk in the cluttered heavens.

As reported by Space.com, director Melissa Butts aspires to communicate the need for a solution through her film.

“I hope that people take away from this film that there are consequences to our actions. We haven’t quite figured out how we’re going to clean it up yet, but I believe there is a will to make it better. I expect that young people watching this film in various parts of the world will be integral in finding a long-term solution,” she says.

Photo by NASA