Now we find large numbers of sea creatures choking to death on the growing volume of plastic bottles, straws, and bags carelessly tossed into the ocean. The same holds true for space. Back in 1957, Sputnik-I was a lone, football-sized object floating in the orbital vacuum. Today, controllers track over 15,000 objects ranging in size from a few inches to large, expended booster casings. However, only about 30% of the objects being tracked are operating satellites. The rest consists of over 12 million pounds of space “junk.”
Traveling at speeds of more than 14,000 miles per hour, even a tiny, pebble-sized fragment could knock a small satellite out of its orbital trajectory. That lone wayward object, or pieces of it, could bump into another, then another, causing a runaway cascade of collisions known as the Kessler Syndrome. And this doesn’t account for the many smaller particles of cosmic dust entering Earth’s atmosphere at the rate of about 200 every second.
Satellites costing hundreds of millions of dollars are at risk. For example, the European Space Agency’s $850M Olympus-I communications satellite was hit by a particle from the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, causing it to spin out of control. Unable to have it gracefully de-orbit, controllers redirected it into a “graveyard orbit,” where it became yet another piece of worthless space junk.
Additionally, there’s the ever-present hazard of solar storms. In February of this year, 40 SpaceX satellites were rendered useless only one day after launch. They were disabled by a geomagnetic storm following a solar flare, which in turn caused an expansion of the upper atmosphere, bringing the final leg of their ascent into orbit to an abrupt halt.
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, commercial space increasingly impacts domestic and international air travel. If you’ve ever watched a fireworks display upfront and close, you may have noticed bits of debris floating gently down from the sky. Now imagine the amount of debris generated by 150-foot boosters carrying over a million pounds of solid propellant. The affected area covers thousands of square miles around which air traffic must be either delayed or re-routed for periods of up to several hours. This disruption now occurs on almost a weekly basis.