Our exploration of space has led to insights about our planet and universe, scientific experimentation and discovery, and a satellite communications system that interconnects our global community. But sometimes, what goes up doesn’t come down.
This image illustrates items in Earth’s orbit that are currently being tracked, about 95% of which are orbital debris & not functional satellites. Photo courtesy of NASA.
As it turns out, the area of space known as “low Earth orbit” is congested with debris, much of it from explosions and collisions, some intentionally released during launch and mission operations, and millions of tiny objects, such as paint flecks, that result from heat stress on spacecraft. NASA tracks this debris, which includes more than 21,000 pieces larger than about 4" in diameter and millions of smaller pieces.
This part was removed from the Hubble Space Telescope during in-space repairs. The yellow arrows show the damage from many orbital debris impacts. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Even seemingly small debris can cause significant damage to spacecraft and satellites because all collisions in space are high-speed. By studying damaged parts, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program is able to help design systems to protect new spacecraft and satellites from debris impact. The program also works to minimize the amount of future debris through improved design and materials. To learn more about space debris, visit http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov.
Space Junk 3D, a short documentary, tells the story of the ring of debris orbiting Earth – and explains how that debris could affect future space exploration.
The film, which continues to play at museums, planetariums, and theaters around the country, will be available on DVD in September. To learn more about this film, visit www.spacejunk3d.com.