Space Junk: What It Is and What Causes It

If you think space is an immaculate space, you’re wrong. It is actually littered with waste, some of which were caused by human activity. Debris in space is called space junk or orbital debris because they orbit the Earth. They are made up of items such as used-up rocket stages, loose fragments from rocket explosions and collisions, launch canisters, dust and paint flakes. Objects or tools lost during a space repair and space walks, such as cameras, garbage bags, wrench, pliers and even an astronaut’s glove are now part of extraterrestrial litter. Abandoned satellites are also considered as space junk.

Is space junk dangerous?
Space junk is harmless in itself, until it collides with something else, such as a space vehicle. For example, if a wrench slips from an astronaut’s hand during a routine repair job in space, it cannot be retrieved. It will then go into orbit, traveling at around 6 miles a second. At this speed, the tool is a dangerous object in space. If it collides with a space vehicle containing human passengers, it could create significant damage that could threaten the life and safety of those onboard. The collision can also lead to more junk to be released into space, creating more risk.

The larger the space vehicle, the greater the risk that it could be hit by space junk. This is probably the reason why space shuttles orbit with windows at the rear, which offers some degree of protection.

Does space junk stay in space forever?
In general, the higher the altitude, the longer the debris will stay in space. According to the European Space Agency, there are over 7,500 pieces of orbiting space junk in space that are at least 4 inches in width. They do, however, find their way back to Earth. Although smaller debris will be burned upon entry in the Earth’s atmosphere, larger items can and have remained intact when they crashed on the ground.

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