By Diana Urbanczyk.
In a bit less than a month from now, we’ll be passing the 60th anniversary of sending the first person into outer space. It was on April 12th, 1961 when Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the very first person sent to space. Inside Vostok 1, Gagarin completed an orbit around the earth. It was a really crazy thing at the time, and no one’s going to forget about it.
We’ve certainly come a long way since then. Now, we’ve already seen so much. The first humans on the moon, first space station, photographs of our entire solar system (look below!), first landing on an asteroid, a space telescope designed to look for Earth-like exoplanets, and much more.
With all these incredible advancements in space tech and missions, it’s a little too easy to forget about the other effects of space missions and travel besides motion sickness.
A lot of space debris is man-made and orbits our Earth. Undeniably, this causes a lot of problems. Especially since space junk comes in all shapes and sizes and can reach speeds up to 17,500 mph, which poses a risk to spacecraft currently in orbit. Even chips of paint travel fast enough to damage objects in space.
In fact, there is so much space debris up in orbit that the International Space Station must move at least a couple times each year to avoid catastrophic collisions.
Hold on- Where did most of this junk come from again?
Most of the space debris around our Earth came from two disastrous events that occured in space. The first one happened in 2007.
In January, the Chinese military destroyed one of their weather satellites with a missile. Put simply, it was a terrible way to get rid of a satellite. The destruction sent thousands more pieces of space debris into orbit. It also left a cloud of hazardous debris. Their deliberate destruction of one of their defunct spacecraft with a ballistic missile was widely condemned. After that “remarkable incident of irresponsible behavior”, the public definitely became more aware of space pollution.
At least the next event wasn’t a deliberate act of producing space debris.
In February of 2009, there was an accidental satellite collision. The Cosmos 2251, an inactive Russian satellite, collided with the active US Iridium 33 communications satellite. It was the first time two spacecraft crashed like this. This collision also resulted in thousands of pieces of space junk. Also not great. Thankfully, all parties learned from this and new measures like daily screenings of surroundings were put in place.
These two times of spacecraft destruction alone have increased the amount of large orbital debris in low Earth orbit by 70%.
Ok, so what now?
Well, there are in fact multiple programs and organizations that exist and track debris in space. One such organization is the European Space Agency. They included a section about the space environment in their annual report from 2020.
Within the report, there are multiple graphs that make the situation clear. Six pages that show how the amount of space debris has only been increasing over the years.
The big news is that the ESA is planning the world’s first space debris removal mission! ClearSpace-1 is planned to launch in 2025. I personally am very excited to see how the mission will go. If it proves to be successful, it will be a huge deal in the space community. It’s good that people are showing how they’re not going to simply ignore all the trash in space, as that would have disastrous consequences.
Then again, we can’t only deal with the aftermath of our actions. Preventing space junk from accumulating in the first place is just as, if not more, important. Requiring spacecraft to adhere to sustainable practices is a step in the right direction. While there are cons, like increased cost, the benefits will help keep space cleaner. Hopefully we’ll see more of that in the near future with approaching space exploration missions.