The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 ushered the exciting era of space travel and modern telecommunications with it. Since then, thousands of launches successfully delivered their payload in orbit, with most of it in low earth orbit (not more than 2,000 km above sea level). As a result, not only have we access to a worldwide network of state-of-the-art tools, but an increasingly worrying sea of space debris. These are leftovers or derelict pieces of rockets, satellites and other instruments that accumulated over time and still hover around the globe at speeds reaching 8 km/s. The United States Space Surveillance Network is actively tracking the largest pieces (measuring 10 cm or more) which account for more than 15,000. There are an estimated 129 million more pieces larger than a millimeter albeit too small to be traced. The very large majority of these will stay in orbit for decades, if not centuries, before re-entering the atmosphere.
Of the 6,000 satellites (approximation) currently in orbiting the earth, more than half are inactive. The inherent risk to this situation is a cascade of collisions that would multiply space junk and creating a vicious circle where the ever-increasing amount of pollution would pose a serious threat to existing space infrastructure. Astrophysicist Donald Kessler imagined this scenario, which was then dubbed the “Kessler syndrome”. If things go completely out of hand, this could jeopardize no less than our capacity to access space.
Efforts are conducted to study the phenomenon and propose potential space debris removal missions. Privateer is a company that developed an intuitive tool to visualize objects and is accessible at this link.
We will need all the help we can get to ensure we are not “stuck” on earth.