SANTA FE, N.M. — People often think of space as a vast emptiness. That’s true on a cosmic scale, but space near Earth is full of 1,300 operating satellites, and tens of thousands of pieces from dead satellites, discarded rockets and all kinds of junk that has accumulated in orbit in the 60 years since Sputnik launched. These objects range from the size of a grapefruit to that of a school bus.
Meanwhile, traffic in the orbital region around Earth is increasing as inexpensive, lunchbox-sized satellites called CubeSats become popular for scientific experiments, communications and national security missions. Plus, a new wave of constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites will soon launch to provide internet service worldwide.
There’s a lot of stuff whizzing around out there.
Errant space junk is a real threat. The density of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) means that a collision could trigger a runaway chain reaction, as the resulting debris from one crash collides with other objects, creating more junk, which crashes into another satellite, or two or three, ad infinitum. It won’t take much to push us over the tipping point into disaster, not only for our satellites, but also for manned spacecraft like the International Space Station, which orbits in LEO, and for an array of satellite-dependent technologies. If space junk disrupts communications, GPS systems, weather forecasting and national security space craft, then the health of our economy and safety of our nation are at stake.