Sustainability in Space: What is Space Junk and How to Solve the Problem?

Hey, Junior Astronaut! Put your responsibility mantle on, because today we're going to talk about a vital subject: space junk. Years and years of sending rockets and satellites into space have led to an increasing amount of debris accumulating around Earth's orbit.

But just like Earth junk, space junk needs to be cleaned up. First, because our sustainable behaviour shouldn't stop where Earth's atmosphere ends. Secondly, because travelling at up to 28,00000 km per hour (!), space debris is a real danger to low orbit satellites, the International Space Station (ISS), and every other spacecraft that ventures to space.

Of course, the reasons don't stop here. If we want space to greet us with its wonders, we owe it respect. So, whether you dream of becoming an astronaut, a scientist, or you're simply a responsible kid, you need to learn about space junk.

This article will help you better understand where space debris comes from and what it is being done to solve the problem. Let's go!

What is space junk?

Space junk refers to any human-made object that orbits Earth without serving a purpose. NASA estimates that there are more than 50,000 pieces of space junk or "debris" around Earth's orbit. While space debris has made it in all orbit levels, the low Earth's orbit is the most affected one.

Most space junk today is made up of old satellites that are no longer in use. However, nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris are also considered junk.

Moriba Jah, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an NPR podcast that space junk is "everything from upper-stage rocket bodies, completely intact dead satellites, shards of stuff...flecks of paint, bolts, nuts."

The bad news is that we generate some sort of unwanted waste every time we launch something into space. Whether we're talking about remains of fuels, exploded bolts, or other unglued spacecraft pieces, unwanted pieces of junk stick to Earth's orbit. And they become a threat.

Why is space debris so dangerous?

Debris in space travels at unbelievable speeds of 28,0000 km per hour. At this speed, even the tiniest speck can become a dangerous weapon.

Moving in random directions, space junk can — at any time — hit an operational satellite, a spacecraft carrying humans, or even the International Space Station. Especially since the movement of this debris is random at best.

There have been quite a few incidents in space caused by space junk. Debris collisions have broken down communication satellites, weather satellites, and even affected travelling rockets.

How to solve the problem of space littering?

There is no internationally agreed-upon regulation that governs debris in space, but there are guidelines. Plus, agencies are working on an international agreement to tax operators an orbital-use fee for each satellite they launch.

Simultaneously, the United Nations encourages companies to deorbit their satellites once they go out of use. Upon entering the Earth's atmosphere, these burn up, leaving as little junk as possible.

Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also trying hard to solve the problem. They have created orbital debris clean-up missions.

For example, ESA launched in 2019 the ClearSpace-1 mission, which aims to retrieve a mammoth old European rocket by 2025, and self-destruct upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

We all need to understand — you, Junior Astronaut, included — that space junk is our shared responsibility. If we want to explore space, then we must do so in a sustainable, respectable way. It's the duty of every one of us to push for space preservation.

Okay, so how about the Nanonaut Programme?

If you haven't yet heard, we have a Nanonaut Programme in partnership with Virgin Orbit that enables you to send your very own satellite into space.

But, after what you've just learned about space junk, you must be wondering: aren't we sending more debris into space?

The answer is no. We take space preservation very seriously and we're launching sustainably and responsibly. Virgin Orbit's missions are in full compliance with international orbital debris disposal guidelines.

All the nanonauts in the programme will orbit for up to 25 years before deorbiting and self-destructing by burning up. They will leave no trace in space, but they will help you dream about the wonders of exploration.

Let's all learn with responsibility. Our actions no longer affect only Earth.