Space is a vast and often empty place, but within our own orbit, things are getting pretty crowded. There are millions of pieces of debris, from busted satellites to lost chunks of rockets, encircling our planet. Some say it's a deadly menace. But just how dangerous is this space garbage, really?
While space agencies the world over have expressed concern over the growing quantities of junk in Earth's orbit, a recent NASA-sponsored report by the US National Research Council (USNRC) has struck a tone of unprecedented urgency,
warning NASA that the levels of space junk surrounding our planet have reached a tipping point. Correction: according to the National Research Council News office, "[The report] did not say that the debris has reached a tipping point, only that some of NASA's models suggest that to be the case."
But not everyone agrees with the tenor of the report. While he acknowledges that the hazards posed by space debris are real, aerospace engineer Hugh Lewis of Southampton University, UK takes issue with the USNRC's publication, saying that Earth's belt of space waste has yet to pose a serious threat:
[The USNRC report] paints quite an alarming picture but I think we can be a bit more upbeat, certainly if we are contemplating removing objects.
Fortunately, space is big and collisions are still very rare. After all, we've only had four known collisions and only one involving two intact objects. It's still not a catastrophic situation, and we need to be careful about using phrases like 'tipping point' and 'exponential growth'.
We've written about promising technologies that could be used to clean up our orbit in the past, but it's important to remember that many of these technologies have yet to move beyond a conceptual stage of development.