Space Debris: Over 170 Million Objects Are Orbiting The Earth That Can Cause A Serious Problem.

Satellites, residues of collisions, pieces of space rockets – almost 170 million space objects that weigh more than 180 tonnes, are orbiting above our heads. Some of them fell, but most are just creating a space landfill. Space debris is not the public’s favorite topic, though it can impend over space vehicles and everything on Earth. However, “space collection” has grown a lot over the years and has become a severe problem. So what exactly can we find among dumping sites above our heads, how institutions and people tried to deal with it, what caused this problem, and how serious is it?

Space Debris Around the Earth (Image Courtesy: NASA)

What is space debris?
We can divide space debris into two categories: natural micrometeoroids and artificial space debris. The first kind consists of small pieces of cometary and asteroidal material, and it’s only a fraction of the overall debris in our orbit. Following the definition, artificial space debris is anything humans create that revolves around the Earth and no longer performs the planned tasks.

The chemical classification method further divides artificial space debris into seven types, depending on the material they are made of. Despite classical “space objects” like old satellites or fragments of rockets, there are a lot of unusual objects. Those include tools and other things lost by the International Space Station, containers, and almost a tonne of uranium. Not everybody knows that nearly 99%of these objects are smaller than a centimeter, and only 0.017% are bigger than ten centimeters.
According to the European Space Agency, in September 2021, the total mass of all space object’s in the Earth’s orbit exceeds 9600 tonnes. Amongst that crowd, we can find thirty thousand space debris objects maintained and tracked by the Space Surveillance Networks.

History of space debris
The space-age started in 1957, and space debris became accumulating over a year later. The first debris ever created is Vanguard 1, the second American satellite orbiting Earth since 1958, mainly as a piece of junk. It was deactivated in 1964, but nobody took it down. In the following years, more and more objects became accumulating in the Earth’s orbit. Finally, the problem started being noticeable approximately in the 1980s, only twenty years after the beginning of the space age.

The Growth of Space Debris from 1957 to 2015 (Image Courtesy: NASA)
Looking for soultions

The history of dealing with debris also began in the ’60s, when the United States and the Soviet Union started testing ASATs (anti-satellite weapons). Unfortunately, ASATs didn’t solve the problem; they just made it more fragmented. By the 1990’s ASATs produced at least 1,190,000 small objects. The government and scientists often discuss the issue, but it is still far from a solution.

However, one of the exciting ways to deal with space debris is from the middle 1990s, when satellites started being miniaturized. Small satellites were cheaper, more refined, and created less mess than their precursors. That did not solve the problem of increasing landfills or debris that existed, but it could reduce its production. Unfortunately, that did not work, and the whole project finally failed in 2014.