Really? W/ Liam Healy: Space junk, there’s how much?

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Earth, MILKY WAY (WVNS) — Space debris, also known as space junk, has made it’s way into the news once again. This time an unidentified object whizzed by the Earth and has been confirmed to be from a failed 1960’s NASA mission.

This animation shows the orbit of 2020 SO that was captured by Earth’s gravity on Nov. 8, 2020. It will escape in March 2021. Its motion has been speeded up a million times faster than real time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The object originally identified by researchers as ‘2020 SO’, is said to be the upper stage of a Centaur rocket booster from the Surveyor-2 mission according to Astronomers with NASA. This particular mission failed spectacularly according to NASA’s records when the lander sent to the Moon crashed into the lunar surface on Sept. 23, 1966.

Graphic showing location of orbital debris

This is only one example of the immense amount of space junk that currently surrounds the Earth. According to the Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) there are currently over 500,000 pieces of debris ranging in size from 1-10-centimeters, and over 23,000 pieces that are larger than 10-centimeters in orbit right now. Add those all together, it’s estimated to weigh over 8,000 metric tons (17.6 million pounds).

(Image Credit: NASA)

All this debris causes issues for the International Space Station (ISS) which has been in low earth orbit since 1999. During the past 20 years, the ISS has had to complete a ‘Debris Avoidance Maneuver’ 26 times. The most recent was in September of 2020, after a unknown piece of space junk entered a collision course with the station.

ClearSpace-1 Credit: ESA/ClearSpace

There is some potential relief on the way for our space junk problem though, as the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch the ClearSpace-1 mission in 2025. The goal of this mission is to send a ‘chaser’ up into a low orbit 500-kilometers to set up a rendezvous with the remnants of an old ESA rocket booster. If this proves successful it could set up future missions from the ESA and other agencies to continue to clear old space junk out of orbit.

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