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Space Debris
What is Space Debris?

          Contently munching on a bag of chips, you look down into the empty bag, seemingly a distant memory of dust and crumbs. With your heart heavy, you unclasp your hand from the bag as it slowly flutters down to join the other superficial, short memories within the trash can. The next morning, the bag travels several miles until it reaches a place where everything is destined to go. Trash litters the field for miles and miles. It’s like a never-ending desert, stretching out miles and miles, yet, this desert grows every day. Similarly to this scene on earth, space has unfortunately met the same fate.

          Unlike the city’s seemingly empty night sky, space is littered with thousands upon thousands of pieces of trash known as space debris, but how are they created? Well, it all starts with humans. Scientists release satellites into the earth as a way for them to study Earth and space. Satellites provide crucial information like weather forecasting as well as navigation (ever wondered how Google Maps worked?). However, as much as satellites help, they can also cause problems in the atmosphere of space. Although there are 2,000 active satellites as of February 2020, there are about 1.5 times the amount of active satellites that are unused. Similarly, when two satellites crash, like the U.S. Iridium 33 and the Russian Kosmos 2251 in 2009, the collision can create up to 2,000 tracked objects which further litter space. Oftentimes, there are many more objects created from collisions like these that are not tracked; the same amount of tracked objects are untracked, further littering space. Space debris can come in many different sizes ranging from super small objects, such as clothes, nuts, and bolts, to large ones, like outdated spacecrafts and satellites, rarely ever natural space debris like meteoroids. Currently, there are over 750,000 identified pieces of space debris that are kept monitored and millions more that are zipping and zooming around the Earth unattended to (scary!).

How Can Space Debris Affect Us on Earth?

          With so much debris in our space, it is only fair that it eventually finds a way back home. Every year, 80 tons of space debris re-enters the atmosphere. Disguised as a pretty and harmless meteor shower, it pollutes not only the land but the air as well. On their trajectory towards the Earth, the debris travels at speeds up to 18,000 miles per hour, usually burning up and leaving compositional chemicals in our atmosphere, depleting the ozone within. If large enough to withstand the heat, the space debris is most likely to land in the ocean or natural lands. Luckily, because of how large Earth is and how most falling space debris decomposes as it falls to Earth, the effects of falling space debris are not impactful in our current time. However, as time passes and more debris begins to fill up space’s atmosphere, one can expect problems and worry to fill up space inside everyone’s head.

          As space debris accumulates every year, our atmosphere becomes increasingly more difficult to send future space projects into. Soon, for instance, inhabiting other planets, piercing through the tight littered space above will prove to be quite the perilous task. As he described through the Kessler Effect/Syndrome, American scientist Donald J. Kessler stated that, once the total amount of space debris reaches past its critical mass, the debris will only keep increasing from then on. In the 1970s, the scientist was able to prove his findings in a theory of how orbital debris had reached this critical mass. This would inherently result in a low chance of future launches as the risk of space debris collision would be too high. Today, the critical mass is dangerously near within the low-Earth orbit of 560-620 miles.

Sources: “How Does Space Junk Affect the Environment?” Science ABC, 2 Feb. 2020, ……..sphere.html. 

David, Leonard. “Space Littering Can Impact Earth's Atmosphere.”, Space, 19 May 2009, … 

Lemonick, Michael. “Climate Change and Space Junk.” Time, Time, 28 June 2010, … 

Ratner, Paul. “How the Kessler Syndrome Can End All Space Exploration and Destroy Modern Life.” Big …..Think, Big Think, 5 Oct. 2018, ……..ern-life.

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