The European Space Agency has presented a worsening problem that people on Earth don’t see: space debris continues to clutter up the planet’s immediate orbit. If nothing is done to address this, space travel might soon be improbable, the agency says.
Scientists met in Germany for the seventh European Conference on Space Debris last week to discuss the millions of pieces of space trash in Earth’s orbit. Pieces of debris large enough to hit and damage spacecraft leaving or entering Earth have doubled in less than 25 years, Yahoo News reports. It’s becoming a bigger problem as small satellites are launching more frequently now, the experts say.
Of the space junk littering Earth’s orbit, around 5,000 objects are bigger than three feet, some 20,000 are over four inches, and 750,000 are close to 0.4 inches in size. Holger Krag, who heads the ESA’s space debris office, told those in the conference,
For objects larger than one millimeter (0.04 inch), 150 million is our model estimate for that. The growth in the number of fragments has deviated from the linear trend in the past and has entered into the more feared exponential trend.
Krag and other scientists are worried about the Kessler syndrome, in which sequential collisions create a pile-up of debris that will make space travel impossible. While the Earth has a long way to go before this happens, satellites have already had to avoid large pieces of trash, maneuvering their way through the debris as they leave.
In the video from the ESA, the video shows the geostationary ring of Earth’s orbit, where the distance between two pieces of junk is less than 120 miles. The camera zooms in, showing the International Space Station bearing scars on its surface due to occasional collisions with debris.
The ESA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are currently working on a solution to tackle the problem, and hopefully find a way to address this before leaving Earth truly becomes just a pipe dream.