Story at a glance
- NASA says that there are more than 27,000 pieces of space junk being tracked by the Department of Defense.
- Space junk travels at extremely high speeds, which equals approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit.
- With a growing commercial space industry, the volume of space junk is expected to grow significantly.
As more and more debris accumulates in space and surrounds Earth’s orbit, one researcher believes our planet will eventually develop rings made completely of space junk.
Jake Abbott, a robotics professor at the University of Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune that “Earth is on course to have its own rings. They’ll just be made of junk.”
Abbott was part of a team of researchers that published a report last month, which detailed how nonmagnetic space junk can conduct electricity. According to an analysis by The Tribune, Abbott and fellow researchers believed to have found a way by using controlled force and torque to slow spinning objects, move them around and eventually collect them. Abbott believes the findings could relate to collecting space junk orbiting around Earth’s atmosphere.
Space junk, also known as space debris, is a growing problem with NASA reporting that there are more than 27,000 pieces of space junk being tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors.
NASA also said that there is likely much more debris in space that’s too small to be tracked but still large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions. Space debris travels at extremely high speeds — approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit — so even a tiny piece of orbital debris can impact a spacecraft and create big problems.
With a growing commercial space industry, the volume of space junk is expected to grow significantly. Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX has carried nearly 900 orbital objects to space this year, according to The Verge. Amazon also has plans to send more than 3,000 satellite constellations to Earth’s low-orbit to provide internet broadband services.
The former Trump administration put together a national orbital debris research and development plan that sought to reduce space junk by recommending the implementation of deliberate spacecraft designs that limit the generation of new space debris. It also recommended improving how the U.S. tracks and characterizes space junk and urged solutions on how to remove space debris and repurpose it for a productive use.
It’s not clear if the Trump administration’s report was enacted but the problem of space debris continues on, while the likelihood of Earth developing rings made of space junk, similar to those of Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, isn’t completely clear either.
Some companies are hoping to help address the issue of space junk like Astroscale, according to Forbes. The Japan-based company has begun construction of a prototype spacecraft that will test out strategies in space that remove debris in orbit.
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