Space debris, or ‘space junk’, is any natural or man-made particle which surrounds the Earth or is in space. While most of it is very small, some of it is very large and can cause collisions with other satellites or rockets, which can make future space exploration and communications very difficult.
What is Space Junk Made From?
Space junk is made from natural materials such as meteoroids, which orbit the sun, while most man-made debris orbits the Earth.
For many years, humans have been putting satellites in space to orbit around the Earth. Many of these are still working, but some of them have died out. It is very expensive to bring them back to the ground, so they just stay in space! The longer they stay in space, the further they are pushed into the local space around the Earth, keeping them out of the way of other satellites and man-made things.
Space Rocket Debris
This comes off space rocket launches and flights. Because there are so many missions to go to space, there is always something left that comes off the rockets after they launch, some of which stay in the local space.
This is natural space junk, and they have nowhere to go except wherever gravity takes them. We do not really need to be worried about this natural junk; we should be more worried about the man-made junk that stays in space and can cause collisions with other junk and rockets.
Is Space Junk Dangerous?
Collisions with large pieces of junk can disable or even destroy a spacecraft because the pieces can travel very fast- some at speeds of up to 28 000 km per hour! Even tiny pieces of paint can cause damage to a spacecraft at this speed. Smaller debris can also cause major damage or threaten a spacewalking astronaut.
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What is Being Done About It?
Telescopes and radars are monitoring more than 12 000 pieces of junk down to 10cm in size. Many millions of pieces are too small to be recorded, like flecks of paint and dust.
The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) watches space debris very closely. It uses a 1 metre telescope in the Canary Islands and a radar system in Germany. This information allows ESOC to give advice about when a spacecraft should be moved to a safer orbit. It also provides early warning of large objects that are about to re-enter the atmosphere.
We need to make a plan to clear all of the man-made space junk that is in space, as it will continue to build up, making further space exploration and communications very difficult.