When mankind began launching satellites into low-Earth orbit, major strides were made in everything from telecommunications and astronomy, to military security. However, the combination of currently orbiting, functional satellites and miscellaneous discarded space junk like spent rocket boosters is rapidly climbing out of control. NASA and other space agencies are already well aware of the problem and are devising methods to deal with it, but the average American might not be aware of the extent of the issue. Here’s a quick overview of the problem of space junk and how much it’s going to cost us going forward.
Number of Satellites in Orbit
There are currently about 6,250 satellites in orbit. That amount alone is enough to create a problem, but the number is about to jump up dramatically. The SpaceX Starlink project, developed by Elon Musk, hopes to get an additional 12,000 small satellites into orbit by 2027. While potentially providing internet coverage for vast areas of the globe, these Starlink satellites are also going to further clutter up low-Earth orbit. Both optical and radio telescope scientists have already decried the project for interfering with their observations.
Space Junk and Potentially Damaging Objects
In addition to the number of satellites currently in orbit, there is plenty of “junk” flying around in low-Earth orbit, and that is of increasing concern. There are currently 34,000 debris objects of 10 centimeters or larger, 23,000 of which are tracked for collision avoidance purposes. The 10-centimeter size, which is roughly 4 inches, is important because according to scientists, a collision between an active satellite and an object of this size “will most likely result in catastrophic destruction of the satellite,” according to the U.S. government’s National Orbital Debris Research and Development Plan. On top of these clearly destructive objects, there are over 100 million debris objects at least 1 millimeter in size, which can also cause damage when orbiting at 17,500 miles per hour. The number of low-Earth orbit debris objects has increased by 50% in just the last five years.
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Cost To Clean Up Space Junk
ClearSpace-1, set to launch in 2025, is the first autonomous mission ever developed to remove space debris. At a cost of $118 million, this spacecraft is just the first of what may have to be many costly space missions to clear out low-Earth orbit. As the 2021 budget for the Office of Space Commerce, which identifies “orbital debris” as one of its focus areas, is just $10 million, it may be some time before significant progress is made in cleaning up space junk. But there’s no doubt that additional funds will be spent, as the risk to satellites is too great. A weather-tracking satellite, for example, can cost $290 million or more to build, resulting in a significant financial loss in the event of a collision. Even the International Space Station had to change its orbit three times in 2020 alone to avoid a collision with space debris.
Greater Ramifications of Space Junk
Space junk is obviously a problem, in terms of danger to existing satellites and overall costs. But there’s perhaps even a greater long-term problem that awaits the human race as a whole. In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler proposed a theoretical problem that became known as the Kessler Syndrome. According to Kessler, there will come a time when the density of objects orbiting the Earth becomes so great that collisions between them will result in a downward spiral of collisions creating additional space junk. At some point, the debris field would become so dense that low-Earth orbit would become unusable, and even worse, mankind could never leave the planet safely. Thus, handling the space junk problem now could help avoid a catastrophic future in which we become prisoners on our own planet.
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