Space Junk - What is the stuff floating around in space?
By Joey Wu
April 12, 1921.
This was the day that NASA launched its first manned spacecraft into the skies above.
However, far before this momentous feat happened, satellites had already been in orbit for almost 30 years! Knowing the incredible amount of rockets, satellites, and missions that have ventured into space, it is natural that there is a lot of galactic trash (generally known as space junk), floating around in orbit.
Whether it is a part of a rocket left in space after completing its purpose or a scrap that fell off of a ship, anything man made that has been left in space can be considered space junk. Since there are no current regulations on space pollution, the problem of piling space junk could easily turn into a large problem, especially when you consider a future where humanity lives beyond Earth! Sadly, one doesn’t even have to look too far to see space junk. There is already almost 400,000 pounds of trash on the moon, including lunar orbiters, flag kits, and hammers.
Beyond the trash that is stuck on the moon, there is a lot of space junk in orbit, meaning that it is on a continual loop around the Earth due to gravity. Much like the way our planet revolves around the Sun and how the Moon spins around us, lots of space debris can end up circling endlessly in our skies.
While the space junk that is close enough to Earth is sucked down, usually burning up in the atmosphere (as it speeds up, the space junk heats rapidly and melts away), those high enough will stay in the same area as the existing satellites, leading to a dangerous problem. What if they run into satellites? What if the space junk makes it too difficult to fly into space?
With over 128 million pieces of space junk currently in orbit, some astronauts in the ISS (International Space Station) devote their time to making sure that collisions don’t take place. Despite their hard work, space junk is still a difficult problem to solve.
Luckily, there is a way to clean up. By forcing space junk to fall down into the atmosphere, they can burn up, resolving the problem of the satellites hitting all of the space trash. There are a few ways this can be done:
A large hook can be used to pull the space trash downward
For metallic objects (like satellites), a magnet can be used
The space junk can be broken up using powerful lasers
Even though the problem of space junk can seem scary, it is solvable with the proper information and understanding. With more astronauts working to clean up the junk orbiting in space, our satellites will roam free in orbit far into the future.
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What is space junk and why is it a problem? Natural History Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2023, from