Space Junk: A Junkyard Catastrophe

When you think about space, you imagine stars, planets, galaxies. But what about the hunks of mass orbiting our own planet? Space junk. Space junk is human objects in earth orbit that are no longer functioning. Harmless now, but wait until you hear about the damage that it could inflict.

A computer-generated image representing the space junk seen from a high earth orbit.

3,000 dead satellites. 34,000 pieces of space junk bigger than 10 cm. Millions of tiny, untrackable pieces all orbiting at 30,000 km/h. That’s 7 times faster than a bullet! A catastrophe in the making.

Space junk is formed when defunct objects are left in space. When we launch our rockets we store the necessary fuel in different compartments. Once the fuel is burned up, that part of the rocket is dropped to prevent dead weight. Some crash down on Earth, some burn up in our atmosphere, but most stay in orbit for years and years. Other sources of space junk come from boosters and shrapnel from missile testing.

You most likely rely on technologies like GPS, and cell signals. Unfortunately, all our 3,000 satellites are right in the middle of that space junkyard. If one tiny piece of junk was to hit one of those precious satellites it would ultimately be destroyed. If you think that’s bad, you may change your mind once you hear the next part.

When a piece of junk hits our satellite, the satellite gets crushed into more small pieces that attack more satellites, that… You get the idea. The more satellites that get crushed, the more likely the other ones will also be destroyed. 4 satellites get destroyed every year. That will turn into 10, then 50, then 100.

No one will notice what’s wrong until it’s too late…

If all our satellites were destroyed we’d be sent straight back into 1970s tech. No GPS, phones, or the Internet. Weather reports? Forget them. Asteroid detection? That would be gone too.

Though that seems pretty bad, we might also trap ourselves on our earth. As space junk builds up, it is creating a barrier between us and space. In ten years there is expected to be 10 times more space junk in our lower earth orbit. All that junk hurtling around our Earth may create an unpassable barrier for decades or even centuries.

Yet not all hope is lost. There are steps that we are taking to mitigate the space junk. Like taking steps to avoid creating more space junk and creating tech that can remove it.

One type of innovation that scientists are working on will catch and remove space junk. There are several different machines including ClearSpace One which focuses on removing unused satellites. ClearSpace One works by grabbing the junk from orbit and then disintegrating it into the atmosphere. Harpoons and nets are also being developed to catch the space junk.

(Source: News — EPFL) How ClearSpace One deorbits satellites

Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee that the robots won’t crush the space junk into even smaller pieces while it tries to remove it. But even if they do, there’s a plan for the smaller bits.

Lasers! Lasers can vaporize small pieces of space junk while forcing larger pieces to burn up in the atmosphere. Still, we want to make sure the lasers aren’t creating smaller fragments.

We are definitely doing a great job, but we’re not quite there yet. If we don’t do anything about space junk, we will suffer the consequences. I think that with more people working on this problem, it will become a distant thing of the past. Anyways, who would want to live in a world like that where we are no longer discovering new things about our universe?

Check some other ideas that have the potential to remove space junk from our atmosphere:



ClearSpace One

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Olivka Rozenberg

Hey! I’m a grade 10 student fascinated with learning, creating, and sharing what I learn with you!