The European Space Agency released a stunning 3D video animation of man-made space debris orbiting the Earth and other planets that could catastrophically collide with future spacecraft.
Since 1957, more than 5,250 launches have led to more than 23,000 tracked debris objects in orbit. Only about 1,200 are working satellites – the rest are debris and no longer serve any useful purpose often referred to as ‘space junk
Two major contributors of the space debris were the Chinese Feng Yun-1C anti-satellite test in 2007 that created more than 3400 tracked fragments; and the first-ever accidental collision between two satellites, Iridium-33 and Cosmos-2251, which created 2300 tracked fragments in 2009.
Scientists are now calling for coordinated international action to mitigate space pollution to ensure the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.
The call for international action came on the final day of the European Conference on Space Debris, a gathering of over 350 participants from science, academia, industry and space agencies worldwide held at ESA’s mission control center, where the ESA Space Debris Office and the SSA effort are based.
During the conference, ESA Director General Jan Woerner made an appeal to keep Earth’s orbital environment as clean as possible. “In order to enable innovative services for citizens and future developments in space, we must cooperate now to guarantee economically vital spaceflight. We must sustain the dream of future exploration,” he said.
Researchers also confirmed there is now a critical need to remove defunct satellites from orbit before they disintegrate and generate even more debris.
“Only about 60% of the satellites that should be disposed of at the end of their missions under current guidelines are, in fact, properly managed,” noted Holger Krag, head of ESA’s debris office.
Many derelict craft have exploded or broken up, generating an estimated 750,000 pieces larger than 1 centimeter and a staggering 166 million larger than 1 millimeter.
“In orbit, these objects have tremendous relative velocities, faster than a bullet, and can damage or destroy functioning space infrastructure, like economically vital telecom, weather, navigation, broadcast and climate-monitoring satellites,” said Dr. Krag.
“This means urgently developing the means for actively removing debris, targeting about 10 large defunct satellites from orbit each year, beginning as soon as possible – starting later will not be nearly as effective.”
Image and video credit: ESA