Science, Tech & Environment

Space junk orbiting Earth endangers satellites, spacecraft

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Photo of space debris (Image by NASA)

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Space junk, currently orbiting the earth, could seriously endanger satellites and spacecraft, according to a new report by the National Research Council. There are now some 22,000 objects orbiting the earth that are big enough to be tracked by the US space command.

If a spacecraft were to come into contact with one of these pieces of junk, "it would be catastrophic," according to Donald Kessler, a lead author on the report. If one of the pieces were to hit a satellite, it could also be disastrous, causing the satellite to break up into a whole bunch of new fragments.

Two recent events have drastically increased the amount of space junk in the earth's orbit. A 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test and an accidental collision between two satellites in 2009 have actually doubled the amount of space junk up there now, according to Kessler.

Getting that space junk back down is going to be extremely costly. "The problem is getting there, and then once you get there, what you do with the stuff once you get it," Kessler says. The "old-fashion way" of going up with a shuttle would be extremely difficult, and Kessler says "you're talking about a large amount of money." There may be a way to get the junk down more efficiently, according to Kessler, and the new report is trying to encourage people to come up with a better way.

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