Business, Finance & Economics

Report says space junk may have reached "tipping point"

A new report from the National Research Council called on NASA to find better ways to monitor and clean up space debris — also known as space junk.

U.S. Strategic Command, which can track man-made objects as small as 10 centimeters wide, says there are 22,000 such pieces in orbit and NASA thinks there could be thousands of smaller pieces of debris up there, The Washington Post reports.

“Some scenarios generated by the agency’s meteoroid and orbital debris models show that debris has reached a ‘tipping point,’ with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures," the NRC report said, according to ABC News.

Don Kessler, a former NASA scientist who chaired the committee that prepared the report, told the Post the debris includes ejected rockets and broken satellites.

“We’re going to have a lot more [debris] collisions, and at an increasingly frequent rate," he said. 

Both satellites and manned spacecraft could be damaged by the debris. The international space station, for example, had a close call in January, when an unknown object came within 1,100 feet.

According to ABC News, the space junk situation got substantially worse in 2007, when the Chinese military attempted to hit an old weather satellite with a missile.

"They succeeded — and thousands of shards of satellite are still orbiting the planet every 90 minutes, putting astronauts and other satellites in danger," ABC News said.

The NRC report did not offer an specific strategy for dealing with the debris, The Post said, but suggested that NASA come up with a plan that centralizes all the staff members working on the problem.

“We thank the National Research Council for their thorough review in this report,” NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said. “We will study their findings and recommendations carefully and use them to advise our future actions in this important area of work.”

Kessler suggested a sense of urgency.

“The earlier we [deal with the problem], the cheaper it’s going to be in the long run," he said.