Taking Out The Trash in Space

This post credited in it’s entirety to: The Big Zowie

Next time you’re out on the street polling the average American about environmental concerns, you’ll probably get most people responding, “somewhat” to “very concerned” about trash littering our streets and highways as environmental pollution. And with good reason. If you drive along almost any highway in America and most rural roads, you’ll see objects d’pollution practically everywhere you look; plastic cups, beer cans, potato chip wrappers and a vast array of bottles, glass or plastic, in almost every possible configuration. Yep, people’s trash is everywhere and it isn’t pretty.

But trash isn’t necessarily dangerous. It’s just unsightly. Now poll those same people on the street again and ask them if they’re worried about trash in space – or, what the better informed refer to as Space Debris…what?? That’s right. Junk floating around in space, plastic cups, beer cans, potato chip wrappers…okay, maybe not. But believe it or not, there is a terrific amount of trash floating around in low Earth orbit, and it’s very dangerous!

It’s so dangerous in fact, we have a national office of space junk. Actually NASA refers to it as the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, located at the Johnson Space Center. It’s the lead NASA center for orbital debris research. More than 21,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm are known to exist. The estimated population of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is approximately 500,000. The number of particles smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.

Okay, that’s a lot of junk floating around up there. But dangerous? Why would it be dangerous? Well not necessarily to us down here, but can you imagine flying around up there in the Space Shuttle, or the ISS (International Space Station) having to constantly duck under flying debris?

And you better duck, because according to NASA: “In low Earth orbit (below 2,000 km), orbital debris circle the Earth at speeds of 7 to 8 km/s. However, the average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object will be approximately 10 km/s.” That’s much faster than a speeding bullet!

Space junk is routinely raining down on us every day. While most of it manages to burn up in the atmosphere, in fact a considerable number of objects do not. They just haven’t managed to hit anyone yet – that we know of! So what are we doing about it? Well, we track it. And we’re creating a lot more new space debris every time we shoot something new into orbit.

Bet you didn’t know how serious the government is about managing space debris: “Orbital debris poses a risk to continued reliable use of space-based services and operations and to the safety of persons and property in space and on Earth. The United States shall seek to minimize the creation of orbital debris by government and non-government operations in space in order to preserve the space environment for future generations.”

Maybe we need to figure out a way to launch a few garbage trucks into low Earth orbit and bag up some of that trash floating around up there before someone gets hurt! That’s a million dollar business plan by the way and you heard it here first.


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