If you needed any reminder of the vast amount of stuff orbiting the third rock from the sun, consider the case of the one-ton European science satellite that just ran out of fuel, plunged back into earth’s atmosphere, burned up into a fiery mess, and dumped debris across the southern Atlantic.
Luckily, the scorched remnants of the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite fell harmlessly from the sky. Even so, there are millions of pieces of space junk that swarm around in earth’s orbit at blistering speeds, according to NASA, and some of it reenters the planet’s atmosphere every day.
Ever since the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, mankind has sent more than 2,500 spacecraft of some sort aloft, everything from monsters like the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station to all manner of global positioning system, communication, and science satellites. Space refuse comes in two forms: meteoroids that cross into the earth’s orbit and the far bigger volume of manmade stuff from abandoned launch vehicle stages, nonfunctional spacecraft, mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris.
Some 500,000 pieces of orbital space junk, clocking speeds of about 17,500 mph, are tracked by the U.S. military. And with good reason: Even a small piece of debris traveling at those speeds could do serious damage to spacecraft—a scenario dramatized to great effect in Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi hit Gravity.
Scientists have been worrying about space debris since the 1970s—and so did a bunch of new wave rockers who favored plastic cone heads. Check out Space Junk from the 1978 hit album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
To get a perspective about the scale of the problem, take a look at the following animated slides based on NASA statistics: