Space Junk

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Space Junk

Space is our next dumping ground.

Space is our next dumping ground.

As many as 170 million fragments of metal and astro debris encircle the Earth as a result of human behavior. That includes 20,000 pieces larger than a softball, and 500,000 about the size of a marble, according to NASA. This debris will pose a navigation hazard for many centuries to come.

At least 200 objects roar back through the atmosphere toward earth each year, including pieces of solar panels and antennas and fragments of metal. All of them pose dangers for future astronauts: One plum-sized piece of gnarled space trash traveling faster than a speeding bullet could rip a five-foot hole into a spacecraft. That collision would then spawn its own batch of shrapnel, adding to the rushing river of junk already circling the planet.

It’s not just Americans doing the dumping, China and Russia each have dozens of decommissioned satellites overhead. Where all that junk winds up isn’t something we can predict accurately. We could be unintentionally wreaking havoc on civilizations far away from Earth, for all we know catalyzing future intergalactic wars. Or, we might cause far less grandiose problems.

Space junk could start to behave in unpredictable ways, reflecting sunlight the wrong direction, changing our atmosphere, or impacting the universe in ways that don’t fit into our current understanding of physics.