Space junk, a different kind of pollution


Image source: National Geographic

Harry Michaud, Contributing Writer

SpaceX, Nasa, Jeff Bezos… as humans we like the idea of venturing out of our atmosphere and into the unknown. However, as the growing net of junk grows in our orbit, it gets increasingly more difficult to send rockets into space, especially those with humans onboard. The first question you could ask is, “What is in our orbit?” When someone says “landfill” the first thing that comes to mind is giant-sized heaps and piles of junk and trash. Orbit pollution sounds like a made up thing, but in reality it is a major threat to life on Earth.

As of September 16, 2021, there were 7,941 satellites orbiting Earth. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first-ever satellite named Sputnik. This satellite was the size of a beach ball and could orbit Earth every one hour and 38 minutes. Compare that to the size and speed of today’s International Space Station (ISS) which is two times the size of a football field and orbits Earth at about the same speed as Sputnik. Since then, satellites have been sent into space at a rapid speed. On Sept. 27, 2021, Nasa’s Landsat 9 was launched into orbit. This satellite will help Nasa track climate change, forest cover, droughts and more. 

Satellites are very helpful to life on Earth; without them, things like getting to work in the morning or talking to your friends over the phone get much harder. But working satellites are not the reason our planet’s orbit is polluted. The problem lies with deactivated satellites, drifting lifelessly in our orbit, bound to be collided with. Other metals and materials zooming around orbit pose a much greater threat.

Image source: Space News

World-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is known for his groundbreaking ideas and understanding of the universe. The episode “Space Junk, Starlink and Falling Rockets – Cosmic Queries” from his podcast “StarTalk” discusses the components of “space junk.” A quote regarding earth satellites: “If we have functioning satellites they are not junk, but if we have thousands and thousands of satellites isn’t there a risk they could collide with each other?” Out of the nearly 30,000 objects that we can track, 3,500 are working satellites. That being said, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, operates 1,500 satellites. Basically, you have to coordinate with Elon before you launch your rocket in order to navigate the orbital highways.

Pieces of debris can tear through a ship. These pieces can be about the size of your fingernail or larger. The problem is it’s hard to calculate and track the locations of these fingernail-sized debris. Debris that are larger can be tracked and maneuvered around. The reason it’s all there in the first place is because of ship and satellite mishaps/explosions or blowing up things in our orbit. Slowly this all creates what could be called an “orbital landfill”. Eventually, things crash down onto our planet or drift out of orbit but that takes a long time. On December 15, 2020, Russia launched a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) to destroy one of their satellites. The only problem is that the debris left behind stays in orbit. You could call it space pollution. Regardless, it is detrimental to our future in space exploration. Additionally, mistakes happen, screws come undone, things fall off, the only thing is those things can be deadly when traveling at insanely fast speeds in orbit. Currently, the Department of Defense is tracking what they can of the debris in our orbit.

Additionally the United States Space Force is tracking what they can of the space debris. After which they are informing governments and organizations about these threats, and working with them on how to maneuver around them. Space debris is a modern day problem, and it is people that are involved with the U.S Space Force who are working to solve it. 

Monomoy High school physics and astronomy teacher Dr. Otto also gave some insight into the topic. When talking about how the problem can be eliminated he said, “It’s going to be a struggle because a big contributor of space debris is the government. Different governments are basically causing problems for our orbit…” There are no rules on who is required to take their junk down.” 

Dr. Otto also stated that the pieces of “junk” are mainly one centimeter or larger. The pieces of debris are traveling less than five miles per second, roughly ten times faster than a bullet. There are two levels that things travel in an orbit, low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit. Low orbit is closer to Earth’s atmosphere with geosynchronous being on a farther elliptical orbit. The thing is, when debris hit a satellite the debris from those satellites hit more satellites and basically creates this spiral of junk in our orbit. “The point at which it would be impossible to launch from Earth would be when you have all these satellites and junk that can’t be maneuvered around.” Basically, unless there is some sort of coordination or regulations, there eventually will have a blockade in our orbit, making it so we cannot launch anything.

Space junk is a problem that is not well known but could prevent humans from leaving the Earth.  Without our ability to leave the Earth, we could be preventing the survival of our species. 

Action needs to be taken swiftly.