A piece of space debris punched a tiny hole in the International Space Station, damaging a robotic arm

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Photos show damage to a robotic arm on the International Space Station, May 28, 2021.

A piece of space debris has punched a hole in one of the International Space Station’s robotic arms.

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced on Friday that they found a 0.2-inch (5-millimeter) puncture during a routine inspection of Canadarm2, Canada’s autonomous arm, on May 12.

The arm is used to transport spacewalking astronauts outside the station and deploy science experiments in orbit. It appears to be working properly despite the hole, according to the Canadian Space Agency.

It’s unknown what the piece of space junk responsible for the hole looked like, or where it came from.

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A photograph showing a chip in the glass aboard the International Space Station, 2016.

This isn’t the first time the ISS – a floating laboratory that orbits more than 220 miles above our heads – has taken a hit. Five years ago, an object struck one of the windows on the ISS’s dome, gouging a 0.3-inch-wide chip in the glass. The culprit may have been a small metal fragment no bigger than the width of an eyelash.

In total, nearly 130 million pieces of debris crowd Earth’s orbit – including leftover rocket parts, pieces of dead satellites, even tiny meteorites. In total, this debris weighs more than 10,000 tons, and more gets added every year. The chunks zip around the planet at more than 17,500 mph, roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet.

NASA and other space agencies keep tabs on more than 23,000 known pieces of space debris that could threaten the space station – pretty much anything larger than a softball. If there’s more than a 1-in-100,000 chance of a collision, NASA will maneuver the ISS out of harm’s way, since a collision could endanger the lives of the astronauts on board.

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With New Zealand in the background, two astronauts complete a spacewalk on the International Space Station in December 2006.

Last year, the agency had to move the station away from space debris three times.

But plenty of space debris is too tiny to track, and even pebbles, dust particles, or flecks of paint that slough off of other satellites can damage the ISS.

A space-junk problem

Among the biggest pieces of space junk in n low-Earth orbit are 2,900 dead satellites that float uncontrolled. Nobody can maneuver them.

space junk
An artist’s illustration of space junk orbiting Earth.

The worst-case scenario is a collision between one of these large objects and the ISS or a crewed spaceship. But even if two dead, uninhabited satellites hit each other, that’s also a problem because any crash will produce new clouds of smaller bits of debris.

As Earth’s orbit gets more congested, the likelihood of this type of dangerous collision increases.

Last year, a defunct Soviet satellite and an old Chinese rocket body passed alarmingly close, and two dead satellites almost crossed paths as well.

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The International Space Station as seen by astronauts from NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour on February 19, 2010.

In an extreme scenario, a chain of collisions in space could spiral out of control, with the debris from one crash causing more collisions, which would create more debris. This could and wind up blanketing Earth in a practically impassable field of debris – a possibility known as the Kessler syndrome. According to Donald J. Kessler, the NASA astrophysicist who suggested the idea in 1978, it could take hundreds or even thousands of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.

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Pieces of a runaway Chinese rocket have rained down on the Indian Ocean, quelling fears it would hit people or property

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, China April 29, 2021.

  • An uncontrolled Chinese rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Indian Ocean Saturday.
  • The rocket had been hurtling towards Earth for a week, with no one knowing when or where it would land.
  • The landing quelled fears that debris from the rocket might have fallen on people or property.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Chinese rocket falling toward Earth at around 18,000 miles an hour reentered the atmosphere late Saturday, landing in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, China’s space agency reported, according to the South China Morning Post.

It was the 22.5-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station on April 28. For the last week, the 10-story-tall cylinder was hurtling around Earth uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. No space agency was certain when it would fall or where it would land.

Although the rocket stage ultimately landed in the ocean, there was a small chance it could have rained more than 5 tons of debris onto unsuspecting people or property.

As the rocket stage fell through Earth’s atmosphere, friction likely heated the surrounding air to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket stage likely fell apart in this heat and most likely burned up. But experts stressed that some parts could come through the heat intact.

The general rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that would be 5 to 9 metric tons of debris.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbing, said at a briefing on Friday that the rocket stage posed little threat, the Associated Press reported.

“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground,” Wang said.

Space debris experts agreed that any surviving pieces of the Long March 5B rocket stage were unlikely to hit inhabited areas, much less planes or boats. Most of the Earth consists of water and much of its land is uninhabited by people.

Still, the object’s orbit took it as far north as New York and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and southern Chile.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5b rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider last week.

It’s not clear whether this uncontrolled fall was an accident

The US Space Force and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, both tracked the rocket stage as it lost altitude.

“For those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement, to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Thursday, according to The Guardian.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.” China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage had fallen into orbit.

Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

Either way, Logsdon said, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China launched a Long March 5b once before, in May 2020, with the same outcome. That launch was a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit, and the rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled, six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

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A Long March-5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, stands at the launching area of the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23, 2021.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two more of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage to ensure it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive and may reduce how much cargo the rocket can carry.

Still, Logsdon is hopeful that China will change its future launch plans based on the international response to this one.

“China in 2007 did an anti-satellite test that created a lot of debris and created a lot of international criticism. And they have not repeated that kind of test since then,” Logsdon said. “So it’s conceivable that international pressure could influence the next couple of launches.”

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Somewhere on Earth, it could rain rocket parts this weekend as a runaway Chinese spacecraft breaks up in the atmosphere

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket
The Long March 5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station takes off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center in Hainan province, China, on April 29.

Sometime this weekend, somewhere on Earth, it’s probably going to rain rocket parts.

That’s because a 22.5-ton cylinder is hurtling around the planet uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. It’s the body of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station last week.

The rocket body is expected to fall to Earth sometime this weekend, most likely on Saturday. That’s according to projections from the US Space Force, Russia’s space agency, and the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research firm that receives US funding.

At this point, it is impossible to accurately estimate where the rocket stage will fall. Projections show it entering the atmosphere in a roughly 20-hour window. During that period, the rocket stage will circle Earth several times.

The spacecraft’s orbit takes it over a vast swath of the planet – from Los Angeles to New York to southern Europe to Beijing, down through most of Australia, Africa, and South America. Mostly, though, it will fly over oceans and uninhabited land.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5B rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

As the rocket stage falls through Earth’s atmosphere, friction will heat the surrounding air to roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket will likely fall apart in this heat, and parts of it may burn up, but other pieces may survive.

Experts estimate that more than 5 metric tons – 11,000 pounds – of rocket parts will rain down somewhere on Earth. That might include fuel tanks, thrusters, large parts of the rocket’s engines, and bits of metal and insulation.

Most likely, all that debris will land in the ocean.

“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small – not negligible, it could happen – but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal-threat basis,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting Earth, told CNN.

Still, this is an “unusual situation,” Logsdon said, and China might have some explaining to do.

‘China owes the international community an explanation’

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The Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.”

China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage was circling the planet and slowly losing altitude. Unlike most modern rocket stages, it had fallen into an unstable orbit. Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed. Chinese authorities have not offered an explanation.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

This rocket has launched once before, with the same outcome. China first launched the Long March 5B in May 2020, in a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit. That rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

Experts can only estimate how much of the rocket body will slam into the Earth. A rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that means 5 to 9 metric tons would reach the ground.

“This stage and its predecessor last May are the sixth- and seventh-largest objects to ever reenter,” Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees the Aerospace Corporation’s space-debris analysis, told Insider.

“The probability that a piece of space debris will land on a city or a densely populated area is usually relatively small,” he added. “But note that this reentry will occur between 41.5 degrees north and 41.5 degrees south latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world’s population lives.”

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Pieces of debris scattered near Boca Chica, Texas, after the explosion of an uncrewed prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket in March.

If any rocket parts land on people or their property, China could be on the hook for the damage. Under the 1972 Space Liability Convention treaty, the launching nation is liable for its rockets and any damage they cause.

“I hesitate to use the word irresponsible,” Logsdon said. “I would like a clearer understanding from the Chinese side of why this is happening.”

But he added, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch the Long March 5B rocket lifting off on April 29.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage so that it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive, according to Muelhaupt – it may require significantly altering the design or even cutting how much cargo the rocket can carry.

“Nevertheless, this is a best practice and is rapidly becoming a global norm,” he said.

Logsdon is hopeful that international pressure could influence China’s launch plans.

“One would hope that if indeed there is, as predicted, pieces that survive reentry, that there would be changes made in the Long March 5B for the next two launches,” he said. “We’ll see.”

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A European astronaut says the risk of the uncontrolled Chinese rocket hitting a home is like getting hit by lightning – and if it did, people would only get a few hours’ warning

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch a Long March 5B rocket lift off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan, southern China.

  • An uncontrolled Chinese rocket is heading toward Earth, and nobody knows where the debris could land.
  • A European astronaut told Insider it is unlikely they will fall on inhabited areas.
  • But if they did, authorities would only have “very few hours” to warn people, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It is highly unlikely that debris from the uncontrolled Chinese rocket that’s falling back to Earth will hit inhabited areas, an official from the European Space Agency told Insider on Friday.

But if the rocket were to fall near an inhabited area, authorities would have only “very few hours” to give people warning, Thomas Reiter, an astronaut and the interagency coordinator for the ESA told Insider on Friday.

A large section of a rocket launched by China on April 29 is currently orbiting the Earth and falling toward the atmosphere. But because the rocket is not controlled, it is not clear where or when it will reenter the atmosphere.

Experts currently believe the rocket could land anywhere within 40 degrees of latitude north of south of the Equator.

“A large part is covered by oceans. Another large part is covered by desert,” Reiter said.

He said that for this reason, “we can say that the risk that something hits inhabited area is comparable to a person getting hit by a lightning.”

However, he said, because it won’t be clear where the rocket will land until the last moment, “unfortunately it’s very difficult to give warning to those areas, if it would, for example, fall down inhabited areas.”

“The pre-warning would be within very few hours, probably even less,” Reiter said.

Reiter said most of the rocket is likely to burn up in the atmosphere, where the temperatures upon reentry are more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, Reiter told Insider.

But he said it is likely that some parts of the rocket are built with materials that can sustain these high temperatures, the likelihood that those parts of the rocket could hit Earth is “very high,” Reiter said.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the majority of the rocket was likely to burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere, and that there was a “very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground.”

Reiter said: “The risk to hit any inhabited areas should be kept as close to zero as possible.”

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The Chinese rocket speeding back to Earth is so unpredictable it could land almost anywhere. One guess is around Turkmenistan late on May 8.

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Experts say anywhere in the shaded area could be the re-entry point for a piece of China’s Long March 5B rocket. Turkmenistan – one possible landing area – is marked with an arrow.

  • The US military and others are tracking a Chinese rocket piece due to re-enter the atmosphere soon.
  • Experts have highlighted a huge swathe of the planet where the rocket could come down.
  • Some say it will re-enter over Turkmenistan Sunday, but estimates differ by thousands of miles.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Experts are tracking a large section of a Chinese rocket which is due to re-enter the atmosphere in the next two days or so.

As the impact gets closer, calculations about the time and location of the debris re-entry are likely to improve. Until then, estimates will “continue to vary wildly,” according to the US military.

It is very difficult to predict where the rocket will land because it is thought to be making its descent in an uncontrolled way.

Space-Track, a website run by the 18th Space Control Squadron, a branch of the US military that tracks space debris, said in a tweet on Friday that the rocket will reenter around 11:13 PM UTC, or 7:13 PM ET, on Saturday.

According to the coordinates given in the tweet, the rocket would fall over Turkmenistan.

These estimates will “continue to vary wildly,” Space-Track said, until it becomes clear when exactly the rocket will reach the atmosphere.

On Thursday, it predicted the rocket would land in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

That is because the rocket currently hurtling around the Earth on an orbit at about 18,000 mph, as it lowers towards the Earth at around 0.3 mph, Harvard Astronomer Jonathan McDowell said in a tweet.

That means if the estimates of when the rocket would reach the atmosphere are off by even a half an hour, the rocket could be almost on the other side of the Earth.

As of early Friday, the margin of error for Space-Track’s estimate was at least 18 hours either way.

Another body tracking the rocket, the Aerospace Corporation, a not-for profit-company that receives US funding, predicted on Thursday that the rocket would reenter the atmosphere on May 9 at 3:43 AM UTC, which is Sunday, at 11:43 PM, ET time.

The rocket could hit the atmosphere anywhere along the yellow lines in the map above at that time, they say.

So far, the only certainty is that the rocket would re-enter the atmosphere within a latitude of 41.5 degrees north and south of the equator, which covers an area as far north as New York City, and as far south as New Zealand.

The “exact entry point of the rocket into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” US Space Command, a branch of the US military that is tracking the object, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Space-Track Twitter page said it would publish estimates daily.

The object that is being tracked is the core module of a Long March 5B rocket that was launched by China on April 29.

Common practice is for these types of objects to fall back to Earth without reaching orbit, which makes it easier to predict where they will fall, Aerospace Corporation said in a blog post.

But the core module of the Chinese rocket reached orbit, and is now circling the Earth on an elliptical pattern, slowly being pulled closer and closer to the atmosphere, Aerospace Corporation said.

The object, which is thought to be around 22 tons, should mostly disintegrate upon reentry, but experts are concerned that some debris could survive and reach the surface of the Earth.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that because of the design of the rocket, the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and there is “a very low probability” of its re-entry causing harm.

Chinese authorities plan to release information about the timing of the rocket’s re-entry in “a timely manner,” he said, according to the Associated Press .

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An apparent meteor shower over the Pacific Northwest was actually burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – take a look

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was streaking across the skies above Seattle and Portland on Thursday.
  • Astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted that it would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.
  • The space junk was from Starlink’s 20th mission at the start of May, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The bright lights hurtling across the sky in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday were made by burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket falling back to Earth.

People in Seattle and Portland started posting videos online of what they initially thought was a meteor shower.

The National Weather Service Seattle later posted on Twitter that the bright objects were debris from one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets “that did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”

A “deorbit burn” is when a rocket flips tail-first and fires its engines, to allow it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, posted on Twitter that the objects streaking across the Pacific Northwest were the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 4. The debris was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.

The falling debris is “unlikely to be major,” he tweeted, and “would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.”

McDowell said in a separate tweet that this is the 14th piece of space junk weighing over one tonne that had come back down to Earth since January 1.

SpaceX regularly launches rockets from sites in California, Florida and Texas.

The rocket launch on March 4, from which McDowell said the debris came from, blasted 60 satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s 20th Starlink mission. It was SpaceX’s sixth Starlink launch of 2021.

The satellites were adding to a rapidly expanding constellation of satellites beaming the internet down to Earth. Currently, there are around 1,300 Starlink satellites in orbit, and the company wants to eventually launch up to 42,000.

Here are some of the scenes that people in the Pacific NW witnessed on Thursday:

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A magnetic spacecraft that can attract dead satellites has entered orbit – a test in a new effort to clean up space junk

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An illustration shows Astroscale’s ELSA-d spacecraft pulling in its space-debris companion using magnets.

Earth’s orbit desperately needs someone to take out the trash. A Japanese company is trying to keep the problem from getting worse.

The company, called Astroscale, has designed a spacecraft with a magnetic plate that can attach to dead satellites – as long as they have the other side of the magnet. That enables it to pull the satellites into a freefall, burning up both the spacecraft and its satellite passenger in Earth’s atmosphere.

The first version of this technology is called the End-of-Life Services by Astroscale demonstration mission, or ELSA-d, and it launched from Kazakhstan on Monday. The spacecraft carries a fake piece of “space debris” with the necessary magnetic plate built in. The plan calls for ELSA-d to release this fake debris then practice grabbing it while both are in orbit.

In the future, satellite companies could build this type of magnetic docking plate into their own spacecraft and hire Astroscale to remove satellites from orbit when they go defunct.

“This is an incredible moment, not only for our team, but for the entire satellite servicing industry, as we work towards maturing the debris-removal market and ensuring the responsible use of our orbits,” Nobu Okada, Astroscale Founder and CEO, said in a statement.

In other words, as the company tweeted after launch: “Let the era of space sustainability begin.”

However, existing space junk doesn’t have built-in magnetic plates compatible with Astroscale’s new spacecraft. According to the European Space Agency, more than 2,400 dead satellites and 100 million bits of debris are already circling Earth – space junk that ELSA-d cannot clean up.

As Earth’s orbit gets more and more congested, this space trash becomes more likely to crash, and those collisions can then send new clouds of metal chunks careening around the planet. Over time, such collisions could create a thick belt of debris that, in a worst-case scenario, may cut off access to outer space.

Space collisions create ‘gunshot blasts’ of high-speed debris

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An illustration of a rocket-body explosion in space.

Even tiny bits of space debris are dangerous, since they zip around the planet at roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet. Last year, the International Space Station had to maneuver away from space debris on three occasions, since a collision could endanger the astronauts on board.

But the largest pieces of space junk – the dead satellites and discarded rocket husks – pose the greatest collision risk.

In October, a defunct Soviet satellite and an old Chinese rocket body passed alarmingly close together. Since nobody could control either spacecraft, there was no way to prevent a collision.

Luckily, the objects did not crash. But if they had, astronomer Jonathan McDowell calculated it would have produced an explosion roughly equivalent to detonating 14 metric tons of TNT and sent chunks of spacecraft rocketing in all directions.

Prior to that, in January 2020, two dead satellites almost crossed paths and exploded into hundreds of thousands of bits of debris.

If they’d collided, that would have been like replacing “two satellites with essentially two shotgun blasts of debris,” Dan Ceperley, the CEO of satellite-tracking company LeoLabs, told Insider at the time.

Scientists have observed real collisions in space as well. In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite missile by obliterating one of its own weather satellites. Two years later, one American and one Russian spacecraft accidentally collided. Those two events alone increased the amount of large debris in low-Earth orbit by about 70%.

Then when India conducted its own anti-satellite missile test in 2019, the explosion created an estimated 6,500 pieces of debris larger than an eraser.

india anti satellite missile asat test mission shakti space debris junk cloud field orbit simulation march 2019 analytical graphics inc 2
A simulation of space debris created by India’s “Mission Shakti” anti-satellite missile test on March 27, 2019.

All in all, more than 500 such “fragmentation events” have created nearly 130 million bits of debris in Earth’s orbit.

Out-of-control orbital debris could cut off humans’ access to space

If the space-junk problem gets extreme, a chain of collisions could spiral out of control and surround Earth in a practically impassable field of debris. This possibility is known as the Kessler syndrome, after Donald J. Kessler, who worked for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and calculated in a 1978 paper that it could take hundreds or even thousands of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.

“It is a long-term effect that takes place over decades and centuries,” Ted Muelhaupt, who leads The Aerospace Corporation’s satellite system analysis, previously told Insider. “Anything that makes a lot of debris is going to increase that risk.”

The sheer number of objects in Earth’s orbit may already be having a Kessler-like effect. Experts say that space congestion has gotten significantly worse since companies like SpaceX began launching large fleets of internet satellites into orbit.

“This has a massive impact on the launch side,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNN Business in October. He added that rockets “have to try and weave their way up in between these [satellite] constellations.”

Astroscale aims to help ensure that dead, uncontrollable satellites don’t wind up lurking inside those constellations.

Some companies may clean up old space junk

A few companies have already expressed an interest in or commitment to cleaning up some existing space junk.

ClearSpace, based in Switzerland, recently signed a contract with the European Space Agency to remove part of an old Vega rocket from orbit in 2025. Airbus, meanwhile, has tested satellite-capture methods using a harpoon and a net.

Astroscale’s demo mission aims to test its magnet strategy. Shortly after separating from its “space junk” prototype, ELSA-d will try to re-capture it. If that basic maneuver goes well, the spacecraft will try more complicated tasks: Astroscale will instruct the debris prototype to tumble, spinning like a dead satellite normally would. That will force the ELSA-d spacecraft to assess it target and line up with the prototype’s docking magnet.

Once the demonstration is done, the plan is for ELSA-d and its captured “debris” to plunge into the atmosphere to meet a fiery demise.

No company so far has a large-scale space clean-up in its sights, though.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said that the company’s mega-spaceship, Starship, could one day be put to the task. But for now, the number of objects in Earth’s orbit is growing every year.

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