Underreported: Space Junk

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Orbital debris is quickly becoming a serious problem for satellites and manned spacecraft. Collisions and other incidents have increased the amount of potentially harmful space junk floating around in low earth orbit by a third in the past year-and-a-half alone. Mark Matney, of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, and Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, tell us about the problem and what (if anything) can be done about it.


Mark Matney and Derrick Pitts

Comments [5]

Mark Matney from Houston

Amy - NASA had very limited active control over where Skylab reentered. They did try to target it over the ocean with limited success. Some debris fell over Australia.

Jim - radioactivity is not really a problem, except for certain Russian and US reactors that were launched into Earth orbit decades ago (e.g., Cosmos 954 that reentered over Canada in 1978). There are some toxic fuels on certain spacecraft (e.g., Hydrazine on USA-193), but generally the quantity is too small to cause more than locally isolated environmental damage.

Alexander - there is an international organization called the IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee) composed of the major space-faring nations, including the US. It advises the UN on technical aspects of Orbital Debris. The IADC several years ago created a document of Standard Practices for OD, and the major space users are adjusting their practices to try to abide by its guidelines. However, it is currently voluntary.

Aug. 26 2010 10:24 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I thought Skylab was directed to land in the Indian Ocean, or at least maintainence of its orbit was stopped at a point that would cause it to reenter over it. And I would guess the main reason some debris from the Columbia fell on land was that it was coming in over land to its landing site.

Aug. 26 2010 01:39 PM

giant magnetic junk collector

Aug. 26 2010 01:37 PM

Are there any radioactivity issues with Space Junk? If this stuff hits earth can it contaminate the atmosphere or water (if it hits the water)

Aug. 26 2010 01:35 PM
Alexander from Sleepy Hollow

The problem of space junk is just one of many examples of why we need to think proactively and work on expanding the body of international law that applies to outer space. There are currently treaties that - among other things - assign liability for when a space object hits earth. But we need new UN-based space treaties that address a wide range of issues such as property rights, weaponization, and environmental protection in space.

Aug. 26 2010 01:35 PM

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