The Sky's the Limit: Space Gets Trashed


If you’re looking for the next big environmental catastrophe waiting to happen – look up.

There are around 900 satellites up there, busily keeping the world connected. They’re immersed in a sea of spacecraft fragments and garbage nicknamed space junk. There are parts of rockets, fragments of destroyed satellites (some of them very fresh indeed), gloves…even, would you believe, an astronaut’s tool bag that can occasionally be spotted whipping across the night sky (and here’s how it got up there).

Around 18,000 pieces are larger than 10cm and can therefore be tracked and avoided. The rest? An estimated 580,000 further objects above 1cm in diameter. And all of these are hurtling round at orbital velocity, with enough kinetic energy to punch through spacecraft armor, destroy systems worth millions of dollars and endanger the lives of astronauts. It’s way beyond being a nuisance and makes a shocking picture.


And it’s not going away by itself. Space is a biologically inert environment. Anything you leave up there will stay left, pristine, until it spirals into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and burns up. This could take centuries – and that’s a very long time for world Space programs, because if a piece of scrap hits anything else, it creates more junk. It’s a tiny junk-making machine that’s powered by our own planet – and there’s over half a million of them up there.

The answer? Treat nearby Space the same way we want to treat our precious ecosystem – with rules, regulations and penalties. Cleanup acts are currently far too expensive, but penalizing astronautical litterbugs could be a way to stop this junk-belt developing further.  Otherwise, somewhere down the line our night sky will be a glittering, inaccessible, lethal sea of junk – and we’ll have shut the door on humanity’s future.

Images: buglugs, quimix

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.