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The Growing Problem of Space Debris: How Much Trash is in Orbit?

An illustration showig the Distribution of space debris in orbit around Earth. Image Credit: ESA.

Space debris, or space junk, is becoming an increasingly concerning issue as more and more objects are launched into Earth's orbit. With an estimated 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm and over 34,000 larger pieces in orbit, this growing problem poses a significant risk to space exploration and the safety of operational spacecraft and satellites. In this article, we'll explore the issue of space debris and its potential consequences, as well as the efforts being made to address this pressing concern.

Space debris, also known as space junk, is a growing problem that threatens the safety and sustainability of space exploration. It refers to man-made objects in orbit around Earth that no longer serve any useful purpose, such as old satellites, rocket boosters, and other discarded spacecraft parts. According to estimates, there are currently over 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm, about 900,000 pieces of debris 1-10 cm, and around 34,000 pieces larger than 10 cm in orbit around Earth. This debris can travel at speeds of up to 28,000 km/h, posing a significant risk to operational spacecraft and satellites.

The increasing number of satellites and rockets being launched into space is exacerbating the problem of space debris. The more objects that are put into orbit, the higher the likelihood of collisions and the creation of more debris.
Efforts are underway to address this issue, including developing technologies to remove debris from orbit and improving space debris mitigation strategies. However, much more needs to be done to prevent space debris from reaching critical levels and endangering future space exploration.

A binding international treaty

A team of international scientists is proposing the implementation of a binding treaty to prevent irreversible damage to Earth’s orbit caused by the expansion of the global space industry. As nearly 200 countries agreed to a treaty protecting the High Seas after a 20-year process, experts believe that society should apply the lessons learned to other parts of the planet. The number of satellites in orbit is expected to grow from 9,000 today to over 60,000 by 2030, and there may already be over 100 trillion untracked pieces of old satellites orbiting the planet. Although satellite technology has many social and environmental benefits, the industry’s predicted growth could render large parts of Earth’s orbit unusable.

Experts in satellite technology and plastic ocean pollution are calling for a global consensus on how to best govern Earth’s orbit. While several industries and countries have started to focus on satellite sustainability, experts say that this should be enforced to include any nation with plans to use Earth’s orbit. An agreement should include measures for producer and user responsibility for satellites and debris, starting from launch onwards. Commercial costs should also be considered to incentivize accountability. These considerations align with current proposals to address plastic ocean pollution as countries negotiate the Global Plastics Treaty.

The High Seas provide a cautionary tale of insufficient governance leading to overfishing, habitat destruction, deep-sea mining exploration, and plastic pollution, which may also befall large parts of Earth’s immediate surroundings if immediate action is not taken. Researchers from the University of Plymouth, Arribada Initiative, The University of Texas at Austin, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spaceport Cornwall, and ZSL (Zoological Society of London), including the academic who led the first-ever study on marine microplastics, published in Science almost 20 years ago, co-authored this article. They also contributed to the commitment to develop a Global Plastics Treaty signed by 170 world leaders at the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022.

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