Space junk is a huge problem for space exploration. It’s such a problem that NASA tracks the debris to ensure the safe passage of its orbital missions through this minefield of junk. It’s difficult to conceptualize the half-million pieces of junk surrounding the Earth, but this 60-second animation created by Stuart Grey for the United Kingdom’s Royal Institution brings it all home in a powerful way.
The mind-blowing clip visualizes the space junk that has accumulated in 60 years of space exploration. The clip began at 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, a small sphere-shaped satellite that sent radio pulses back to Earth. The mission was successful, and Sputnik became the first piece of space junk, remaining in orbit for several months until it burned up in January 1958 during reentry. The United States followed the Soviet Union with its satellite, Explorer 1, which also became space junk.
Since the 1950s, the amount of space junk has increased at an alarming rate. According to the latest estimates, orbiting space junk numbers in the millions, with more than 500,000 pieces of trackable debris that are marble-sized or larger. Of the trackable debris, more than 20,000 pieces are bigger than a softball and pose a significant threat to orbiting spacecraft. After years of slow and steady accumulation, more than 5,000 new pieces of junk have been added in recent years. China in 2007 contributed 3,000 pieces when an anti-satellite test went awry, and in 2009, a derelict Russian satellite collided with a U.S. commercial satellite. The impact between the two space objects added more than 2,000 pieces to the space junk problem.
Space junk is more than a nuisance; it can make space travel dangerous for satellites, spacecraft and other man-made objects circulating the Earth. This orbiting debris travels at speeds up to 17,500 mph, which is fast enough that even very small pieces can cause significant damage to a spacecraft upon impact. Over the course of its operation, several U.S. space shuttle windows have been replaced due to collision from minuscule space-based material later identified as paint flecks.