The Growing Problem of Space Junk

Author: Patrick Lin

Editor: Kira Tian

Artist: Cici Zhang

From tiny flecks of paint caused by surface erosion to large, abandoned satellites, space junk is a growing problem the world has to solve if it wants to continue activity in space. Space junk, usually orbiting the Earth, includes all artificial particles in space. Since space junk can travel at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour, it can pose a severe threat to spacecraft, whether a tiny particle or a large chunk of metal. Although space junk is dangerous to spacecraft, it is usually overlooked when a payload is launched into space.

Even though most people will never go to space, we still rely on services in space such as weather forecasting, telecommunications, and GPS systems, all of which are threatened by space junk. The Kessler syndrome or collisional cascading is a theoretical scenario where space activity becomes extremely difficult or even impossible to achieve due to an overload of junk in Earth’s orbit. When space junk collides with each other, the junk breaks into smaller parts that would cause even more collisions. There has been no real effort to clean up space junk, and there are not many regulations that hold those who created the junk accountable. Thus, space junk continues to increase profusely. In 2019, India blew up one of its satellites in a missile test. The explosion let out hundreds of pieces of space junk, some of which threatened the International Space Station. In 2007, China also launched a missile on its satellite, and in 1985 and 2008, the US did the same, all of which created a fair share of space junk.

Some countries and companies have invented devices to remove or prevent space junk. Solutions range from installing devices that control the entry of junk into space to shooting water to slow down junk so it can fall out of orbit. Despite this, existing laws and treaties fail to obligate countries to bear the responsibility for the junk they create; other countries also do not feel incentivized to intervene. In the modern world, everyone acts in their self-interests. However, space junk needs to be addressed by nations in a shared effort because it is universal property.

Space junk threatens every country and company that wants to access opportunities that space creates for them. The removal of space junk currently in orbit and the prevention of more debris released into space are necessary if we want to continue being a spacefaring civilization.


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