scorecardWatch the moment a cosmonaut tossed a bag of parts into space but NASA said the space litter is harmless
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Watch the moment a cosmonaut tossed a bag of parts into space but NASA said the space litter is harmless

Jessica Orwig,Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Watch the moment a cosmonaut tossed a bag of parts into space but NASA said the space litter is harmless
LifeScience3 min read
Russian cosmonaut with bundle of leftovers about to throw into space.    NASA TV
  • A cosmonaut threw a bag of leftover parts into space during a spacewalk last week.
  • Technically, it's space littering. But NASA said tossing the bag into space was harmless.

Last week, cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin donned their spacesuits and ventured outside the International Space Station for a spacewalk that would last 7 hours and 11 minutes.

The spacewalk went smoothly and was a success, but that's not the reason these cosmonauts are gaining attention.

About 6.5 hours into the spacewalk, Prokopyev tossed an 11-pound bag of leftover equipment into space. "It flies beautifully," the cosmonaut said as it sped into the dark void.

Now, if this were an electrician working on a powerline who chucked their bag of leftovers into a ditch after the job, you'd call that littering. And that's what some media are insinuating here: that Prokopyev did something wrong.

However, NASA tweeted shortly after the event that the bundle was harmless because it will just burn up in Earth's atmosphere:

That's because space littering is different. Basically, space littering is like if someone came along after the electrician, burned the bag, and discarded the ashes. Earth's atmosphere is like our own personal trash dispenser, in a way.

It's not clear how long the bundle will remain in orbit, but since it has no engine to boost itself every few months like satellites do, gravity will soon drag it into a freefall through the atmosphere, where friction will burn it up.

"It has a short shelf life in orbit," NASA tweeted.

We're not saying that space junk, in general, isn't a problem. It threatens the lives of those on the ISS as well as future space exploration as a whole.

The biggest concern when it comes to space junk is defunct satellites, rocket stages, and other large pieces of unmaneuverable metal that can collide in orbit.

Such high-speed space crashes explode into a vast cloud of debris — thousands of tiny bits of spacecraft that rocket around Earth faster than a bullet. If any of those debris pieces strike an active spacecraft, including the ISS, it can cause serious damage.

space shuttle endeavour wing debris junk hit hole damage nasa
A space-debris hit to space shuttle Endeavour’s radiator found after one of its missions. The entry hole is about 0.25 inches wide, and the exit hole is twice as large.      NASA

Old space equipment can also break up in orbit simply because it's old and falling apart. That, too, creates clouds of high-speed debris that can threaten functional satellites and the ISS.

In fact, multiple times a year the space station fires its booster to push itself out of the path of incoming orbital debris — and for good reason.

ISS damage thumb
NASA/Canadian Space Agency

A hit by a 10-centimeter sphere of aluminum in orbit would be akin to detonating 15 pounds of TNT, according to NASA. Even paint flecks orbiting Earth have damaged spacecraft windows.

A chip in the ISS cupola taken by Astronaut Tim Peake is seen on a dark background
A picture of a chip in the ISS Cupola taken by ESA astronaut Tim Peake in April 2016      ESA/NASA

Occasionally, a piece of space junk weighing at least 1 ton falls from orbit, is too large to burn up, and lands somewhere on Earth.

Luckily, most of the planet is water and only some of the land contains buildings and people. The odds that falling space junk will cause injury or damage property are extremely low, but they're slowly creeping up as more and more stuff gets launched into orbit.

But a tiny bag, like the one Prokopyev tossed, is not a concern because it will quickly deorbit and burn up in Earth's atmosphere, without a trace.

During the spacewalk, Prokopyev and Petelin completed their main objective to relocate an airlock to a Russian module on the ISS that will help deploy future Russian experiments and small satellites. The two cosmonauts are scheduled to complete another spacewalk this Friday.




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