How big is the space clutter problem?

“The problem is that there are a lot of old, uncontrollable satellites floating around the Earth, from old missions,” says Liam Pieters, who graduated in the space debris department at TU Delft. “And they have a very high chance of colliding with new missions.”

The consequences of this could potentially be enormous. Because those “new missions” are satellites that predict weather, do climate research, and enable GPS signal. They are satellites that we all use every day.

7 million kilograms of space junk

According to Peters, the latest estimates assume that there is now about 7 million kilograms of space debris orbiting Earth, and possibly more. This junk comes in all shapes and sizes, from chipped bits of paint to old satellites the size of a school bus.

From the size of 10 cm cuttings can be traced from the ground. There are 32,000 of them. We can’t keep track of the tiny pieces, but they are also moving around the Earth at speeds of up to 7.5 kilometers per second.

chain reaction

“And if a marble—a centimeter—smashes into your satellite at that speed, you’re really in trouble,” Peters says. Moreover: if a lot of these pieces collide, you get a chain reaction. “You can imagine that each collision creates a thousand new pieces. And each piece of that creates a thousand new pieces. At some point, it could lead to a situation where we lose all the satellites.”

space free of debris

However, most experts atlas He is optimistic that the space debris problem can be contained or even solved. For example, there is the “Net Zero Space” coalition of companies and organizations that want to address the problem.

And, as mentioned, the European Space Agency has announced that it wants to be free of debris by 2030. That’s a huge step forward, Peters believes, because the US and Chinese space organizations should already follow suit – and these are the main causes of space debris. At his company ClearSpace, they’ll help the European Space Agency with that, by cleaning up a piece of space debris the size of a small passenger car soon.

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