It’s a dilemma faced by every adventure traveler: to find the perfect remote spot untouched by modernity, free from cell phones, television, and trash. Of course there is no such place, not even in space. In fact, the orbital detritus of modern life can be downright dangerous, scientists warn.
A new report from the National Research Council says there are so many bits of trash in orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to fragments like nuts and bolts, that they’re bumping into each other, breaking apart, and making more trash. Around 22,000 large pieces of space junk are tracked from the ground, occasionally prompting the International Space Station to maneuver out of the way, and there are hundreds of thousands of more pieces too small to be detected. It amounts to a cloud of trash surrounding the earth, as this NASA image shows.
This puts current astronauts and future space tourists in peril. With the high velocities objects achieve in orbit, it’s like having hundreds of thousands of bullets flying around the Earth.
And it’s getting worse. The BBC reports two satellites crashed in 2009 and broke apart. Also, the Chinese tested a satellite killer in 2007 that successfully smashed up its target into more than 150,000 pieces larger than a centimeter. The U.S. and Soviet Union tested similar weapons back in the 1960s and 1970s, creating their own clouds of debris.
Several manned spacecraft have been hit by space debris. Two Shuttle missions have had radiator panels in the cargo bay punctured by debris. The International Space Station and Mir have both suffered numerous impacts. Sometimes the damage is caused by natural micrometeorites.
One certain impact by space debris was in 1983 when a fleck of paint smacked into the space shuttle Challenger’s front window and left a crater, as you can see in this NASA image.
If a fleck of paint can do this to the Space Shuttle, imagine what an old rocket booster could do.