On top of the current climate crisis on Earth, humankind has also polluted the surrounding of the globe with half a million pieces of space debris that could cause a catastrophe in less than 50 years. In December, one piece of debris came dangerously close to the ISS, which only has a “shielding” protection of 2cm against any debris impact.
Although NASA is monitoring 28,000 pieces at the moment, the small ones (no larger than 10cm) are too small to follow and could cause severe damage to any structure in space.
In 2021, space junk hurtling towards the ISS smashed into one of its robotic arms, leaving a hole.
As of now, removals only concern “three or four pieces a year,” according to Carolin Frueh, associate professor at the School of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Purdue University in Indiana.
She added: “I think it [space debris] is becoming one of the biggest pollution disasters, knowing what we do on earth and knowing how big the problems are here.”
Most debris orbit around Earth at about 17,500mph, although some estimates say it could be upwards of about 900,000.
The higher the altitude, the longer the pieces stay in orbit.
They mostly come from previous satellites, which were willingly destroyed by missiles.
Russia was recently criticised for destroying a defunct Soviet-era satellite at about 500km altitude and creating more than 1,500 pieces of debris, according to the US Space Command.
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NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at the time: “It’s unbelievable that the Russian government would do this test and threaten not only international astronauts but their own cosmonauts that are on board the station.”
Debris also includes crystallised human urine from previous decades and objects lost by astronauts while spacewalking, such as a spatula, tool bag, camera and glove.
The ISS now uses a waste recycling system that converts urine into clean and drinkable water.
John Crassidis, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at the University of Buffalo in New York, who works with NASA and the US Air Force on space pollution, told The i that orbits could impede future space operations.
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He said: “I don’t think people are going to take it as seriously as they should until a human gets hurt in space.
“It’s going to get to a point where in low earth orbit, the probability of collision is going to be so big that putting something up there is going to be useless.”
He added: “It’s just our nature, right? ‘Let’s just put this off to our children,’ that’s the classic way we think.
“I actually believe in 50 years if nothing is done, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
There are no international treaties to stop these missions and no penalties for nations that trash space.