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4-8-nrc-evaluates-nasas-orbital-debris-programs

Since the first object, Sputnik One, was launched into space, mankind has created tens of millions of items of space debris.

There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth and more than 500,000 pieces the size of a marble or larger, that are being tracked by NASA as they orbit the Earth.

There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.

In almost 50 years of space activities, more than 4900 launches have placed some 6600 satellites into orbit, of which about 3600 remain in space (only about 1000 are still operational today.) The debris is a collection of defunct man-made objects in space – old satellites, rockets, and fragments. They pose a huge risk to our infrastructure in space, but especially to the International Space Station, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.

The debris travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities.

A piece of space debris left this hole in a panel of Solar Max, a satellite launched in 1980.
A piece of space debris left this hole in a panel of Solar Max, a satellite launched in 1980.

Recently, one of the International Space Station’s windows was hit by a tiny speck of space junk.

The European Space Agency says the piece of debris that caused the damge was “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimeter across.”

Another instances was in July 2015, when crew members aboard the International Space Station had to seek emergency shelter in the space outpost’s Soyuz capsule in July as a chunk of space debris thought to be the remains of an old Russian satellite came speeding at them at about 35,000 miles per hour (about 56,327 kilometers per hour).

Unsurprisingly, space agencies are looking for ways to minimize the creation of space junk, and to clean up the debris that’s already out there. There are a lot of ideas from junk-eating space vacuums, to nets and lasers.

 

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