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Space debris continued to be a big problem in 2021 and it’s only going to get worse

Dec 29, 2021, 10:36 IST
Business Insider India
According to NASA, even a tiny bit of space debris colliding with a spacecraft can cause big problems.NASA
  • Space debris or space junk has been an issue for years, and it continues to be a major problem for space exploration.
  • There were multiple incidents of space debris potentially colliding with the International Space Station this year.
  • Here’s a look at what causes space debris, who’s responsible and what can be done.
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2021 has been a big year for space with major launches and events like space tourism kicking off, the first chilli peppers growing in space, and more. There were some unfortunate events too with one such incident of the International Space Station (ISS) moving 1,240 metres away to avoid space debris caused by a demolished Chinese satellite.

This isn’t the only incident of the year though as there have been quite a few instances of space debris that could have caused collisions.

So what is space debris?


Space debris or space junk is basically discarded material from launch vehicles like rockets or parts of spacecraft that are left to roam around in space. Since this junk material floats around space, it can often come in contact with satellites or space stations risking collision. Space debris can also come from explosions in space or through missile tests to destroy satellites.

Since space debris floats in low Earth orbit and at speeds of around 15,700 miles per hour, this makes it highly possible for satellites or a spacecraft to collide with the materials.

How much space debris is there?


According to the US Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) more than 15,000 pieces of space debris larger than 4 inches have been tracked. It is also estimated that there are around 200,000 pieces sized between 0.4 and 4 inches, and millions of pieces smaller than 1cm. According to NASA, even a tiny bit of space debris colliding with a spacecraft can cause big problems.

Who is responsible for the space junk?


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Russia, the US, China, France and India are responsible for space debris. According to reports, Russia is said to have the most space debris estimated to be around 14,500.

Space debris events in 2021


Given the fact that space junk can float in space for several years makes it a big problem. For example, a chunk of an old rocket launched by the US in 1994 passed close to the ISS causing the space station to move its course. Space junk from an old Chinese weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007 also almost collided with the ISS last month.

A Russian satellite was also destroyed last month which the US said led to more than 1,500 pieces of large space debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller debris that could potentially collide with the ISS.

Can space debris be removed?


Space debris that orbits below 600 km will fall back to Earth in several years but those that are above 1,000 km will continue floating for 100 years or more, according to NASA. But there are missions planned by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) with startups to clear space junk.

JAXA has partnered with Astroscale and the first phase of the debris removal mission is planned for 2022. ESA is planning to launch its mission in 2025 with Swiss startup ClearSpace.

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