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The surprising threat of debris in space

The International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour's final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. (Paolo Nespoli - ESA/NASA via Getty Images)
The International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour's final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. (Paolo Nespoli - ESA/NASA via Getty Images)

Waste is a problem here on Earth — and far, far away in space.

The final frontier is littered with space junk from old satellites and probes. The United Nations recently found that of the 34,000 identified objects orbiting the Earth, more than three-quarters are debris.

“Every single satellite that we launch is kind of like a single-use plastic. It’s a single-use satellite. Eventually, these things die on orbit when they stop working,” says Moriba Jha, space environmentalist and professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. “They don’t just drop like rocks. They keep on orbiting for very long periods of time.”

The UN report says space junk is near a tipping point comparable to melting glaciers and rising deadly temperatures.

Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite launched from Earth, set off in 1957. Now, scientists like Jha are tracking 50,000 objects ranging in size from a cell phone to the space station. Only 5,000 of these objects are working, he says.

“When satellites die, sometimes they run into each other and become smaller pieces,” Jha says. “Or a piece of junk could hit a satellite that we are really dependent upon for position, navigation, timing, communications, even the internet. That’s the risk.”

In Earth’s low orbit, some school bus-sized pieces are moving faster than bullets. These objects pose a safety risk, especially as more civilians start traveling to space.

“If a bullet does a lot of damage at the speed of a bullet, imagine something so much larger traveling like seven times the speed of a bullet,” Jha says.

Companies are allowed between five and 25 years to remove dead satellites, but there’s no penalty or punishment for failing to do so, Jha says. He’s calling for governments to stop the launch of single-use satellites and incentivize operators to design reusable and recyclable technology instead.

Space sustainability is an ongoing conversation at the UN, but enacting regulation takes time, Jha says.

“Things at the UN can be discussed,” he says, “but I think governments right now — the United States and other countries — could just make this a part of the requirement to get licensed.”

Many people don’t realize how much humanity relies on working satellites that could collide with a piece of space junk at any minute, which fosters a lack of empathy about the problem. Much like purchasing goods made with sustainable practices at the store, people can demand transparency from companies that use satellites like GPS and internet providers, Jha says.

The U.S., China and Russia — the nations most responsible for space junk — need to clean up their trash and make room for working space objects, he says.

“Space is never going to be like it was prior to 1957,” But those three countries are the main ones that have put up the preponderance of space debris. And it is their responsibility to clean a significant amount of that up.”

Thomas Danielian produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Micaela Rodriguez. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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