The uncertain truth about space trash

By Nick Stern, Senior Reporter & Rene Thompson, Editor in Chief | Photo Courtesy of


Ever since Sputnik 1 was launched into space in 1957 by the Soviet Union, people have been launching rubbish called orbital debris or more commonly known as space trash, and as of 2010, according to extremetech. com, there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris that are five centi­meters or larger, and are as big as whole satellites.

There is an estimated 500,000 pieces of marble-sized debris about one centimeter, because of collisions and are un-trackable because to their small size.

These debris can be from rocket stages, which are pieces of detached rockets, to broken or near useless satellites, and experts say the problem is becoming a major issue for future space flight and navigation, so it is an issue that must constantly be monitored.

One of the many reasons why the world is having this problem is that every single space launch has contributed to this junkyard, and according to the debris sometimes move at ludicrously high speeds of 4.3 to five miles per second, and five miles per second is 18,000 miles per hour, so that speed is almost seven times faster than a bullet, and can cause mas­sive amounts of damage to working satellites, space stations, and space shuttles, which could be danger­ous to astronauts and affects space exploration in general.

Math, Science and Engineering Instructor, Joseph Piscitelli said the extreme shaking caused by the thrust of launching shuttles causes all sorts of things to pop off during flight and that space shuttles are especially well known for losing heat tiles, which protect the shuttle from the extreme temperatures in space and during atmospheric re-entry during every launch.

“So, NORAD maintains a data­base constantly of man-made debris, taking into account debris from new launches and the debris that have fallen back to Earth,” Piscitelli said.

According to “The Clutter Above” at, there is even more cause for worry as there have been many instances of debris falling from the sky all over the world, such as in 2000 in South Africa and again in 2001 in the Middle East, and the most famous examples of debris impacts were the American Skylab crash in Australia in 1979 and the Russian MIR crash in 2001.

According to the Japan Daily Press, there might be some hope though, as the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, in partner­ship with other companies, will be launching a shuttle with a newly invented “electrodynamic net” to slow down debris and tether them into the lower orbit of earth, where it will hopefully burn in the atmosphere.

After managing to deliver payloads out of the Earth’s atmo­sphere and into space, there are still bits and pieces of junk that have become loose or are impacted by micro-debris and get lost while in orbit, Piscitelli said.

“In general, physics is one of the most common problems to cal­culate the impulse (and navigation) needed to launch a rocket into space. What most people do not take into account with space launches is that the ridiculously large rocket thrust that is required to lift something out of Earth’s gravity well and produces enormous vibrations in the rockets and their payloads,” Piscitelli said.

Space Stations and shuttles have to maneuver themselves out of the way of catastrophically fast-moving trash but satellites are extremely relevant in the informa­tion age as well, and according to the “The Clutter Above” article, these satellites are used for the majority of communications, internet access, navigation, military surveillance, and spa­tial environmental research.

There could also be impli­cations to early warning satel­lites if they were destroyed by an impact, and there would be no defense against nuclear-armed nations or any way of knowing when attacks would occur.

According to the article, the results from a NASA risk assess­ment stated that of the 20 most likely situations that could lead to the loss of another shuttle, space debris was number 11.

Piscitelli said that the man-made debris has really become an issue since the 60’s and has only gotten dramatically worse, so unless nations with space explo­ration programs start taking this issue seriously,this could be haz­ardous to the whole world.

According to extremetech. com, NASA has experimented with the idea of a “laser broom,” which is said to be an Earth-based laser that fires up into space, shift­ing debris that is on a collision course, or possibly de-orbiting it, but has yet to enact this idea as a solution.

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