Did You Know Space Debris The Size Of A Paint Fleck Can Destroy A Rocket?

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As humanity reaches for the stars, we're polluting the Great Expanse the same way we pollute our Earth. Much like the landfills destroying greenery, space companies are filling the Earth’s orbit with space debris.

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Often referred to as space junk, space debris left over from rocket launches and orbital satellites are blotting the skies and making exploration dangerous. But who is causing it? How much is there? Is it dangerous? That's what we’ll be answering.

How much space debris is there?

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According to a NASA report, there's currently around 100,000 million pieces of space debris around our Earth. Approximately half of this debris is tiny; NASA states that the majority of space junk is “the size of a marble”. These tiny scraps of rocket waste can be as small as 1 centimetre.  However, the massive scale of junk adds up.

Out of that 100 million, around 6,542 satellites are orbiting the Earth. 3,170 of these satellites are inactive, introducing massive objects that become obstacles that rockets must desperately avoid.

Using satellite data, we're actually able to track larger pieces of space junk in real-time. Website Stuff In Space provides an easy-to-parse map of debris surrounding the planet. The website shows satellites in red, discarded rocket parts in blue and other debris in grey. As you can see, there’s a lot of it.

Space Debris on Stuff In Space
click to enlarge

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How dangerous is space junk?

Even tiny pieces of space debris can be extremely volatile. The previously mentioned NASA report explains that literal flecks of paint can result in drastic damage to rocketships. These miniscule bits of paint are trapped in the Earth’s orbit, flinging around at massive speeds. As a result, these bits of paint have obliterated rocket windows. 

NASA says that “millimetre-sized orbital debris” is the biggest obstacle for the future of space travel. If space travel continues and space junk increases, the danger of space junk is also increasing.

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Is Elon Musk responsible for a lot of space debris?

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others are kicking off the era of private space travel. However, with the massive increase in space travel comes a massive boost in waste polluting our orbit. At the time of writing, Elon Musk's SpaceX is responsible for a large amount of space waste.

In a report by Space, it was revealed that Elon Musk’s company is responsible for a lot of close encounters. Close encounters are experiences where rockets nearly collide with space debris. In recent years, these encounters are only increasing.

Every week, Starlink satellites are said to be responsible for “about 1,600 close encounters between two spacecraft every week”. That's without even mentioning SpaceX rocket waste in orbit. This massive amount of space junk has resulted in other Musk-led projects almost colliding with objects.

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What Elon Musk thinks of space junk?

At the moment, Elon Musk hasn't really revealed plans to decrease the amount of space debris in orbit. Importantly, SpaceX’s big promise is a constantly reusable rocket with Starship. This would result in less debris as rocket parts wouldn't be constantly left in space.

However, Elon Musk's actual thoughts on space junk are incredulously juvenile. Revealed on Twitter, Musk said that Starship could fly “around space & chomp up debris with the moving fairing door”. Now that's ridiculous.

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Can space junk be cleaned up?

Space junk can be cleaned up, and clearing up space is a huge focus of multiple companies. Firstly, new company Privateer by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is working on cleaning up space debris. Details on Wozniak’s company are sparse, but it is dedicated to cleaning up space junk.

Furthermore, other companies are attempting to clean up messes left by companies such as SpaceX. Space Cleaning company Astroscale plans to launch a 175-kilogram spaceship with a magnetic satellite that will grab space junk. The junk will then be burned within the planet’s atmosphere and reduced to ashes.

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