Tag Archives: space debris

What pollution in the final frontier says about us



I’ve always thought that if you want to understand how something is going to affect a system, it is sometimes helpful to look at a system that is fragile or extreme.

This image, created by the European Space Agency, depicts all known objects – functioning and dead – in orbit around earth. The size of an object corresponds to its actual density data, but (obviously) not to scale. Interestingly, every year we add 200 objects to this image, and that’s not counting the thousands of pieces that are created whenever any two objects collide.  There are currently 17,000 known pieces of space debris larger than 10 cm and an estimated 10,000 pieces smaller than 10 cm.

What I find fascinating about this image is how it demonstrates that even in the vastness of space our failure to recycle and not plan for obsolescence leaves us with tens of thousands of pieces of space junk whirling around above us. That may sound harmless but understand that a piece of metal the size of a bolt, flying at the expected speed of 36,000kmph (or 21,600 mph) has the kinetic energy of a 400-lb safe traveling at 60 mph. Needless to say, such an object slamming into a satellite, or worse, a space station, could generate some pretty dramatic results. Indeed, there was a real fear last week that this was about to happen.

We need a whole new way of managing what we create, to engineer it to from cradle to cradle, both up in space and of course, down here on earth.