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Cosmic Problem of the 21st Century


01 Sep 2021

The everlasting search of ways to explore deeper into space has some great input on our knowledge but also, and that we often forget, has devastating consequences for Earthians. As human activity in space increases, the Earth’s orbit is slowly becoming more and more polluted. According to recent NASA reporting there are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth every day.

The European Space Agency (ESA) based in Darmstadt has recently warned that our current behaviour in space is unsustainable. If we continue to pollute cosmos at a current pace, the number of objects in orbit will make it hard to safely operate up there at all. ESA has also highlighted that millions of debris fragments floating in space are “the direct result of fragmentation events in the past”, like old satellites simply falling apart or trash left behind during numerous space explorations. Furthermore, the fuel and other energy sources left undisposed of on-board an unused satellite or rocket body can lead to explosions, which adds to the dangers of space travel.

To make threat assessments easier, space industry developed specific categories of garbage that are being left in the space, includes three types of objects: larger than 10 cm, 1 to 10 cm in size, and those smaller than 1 cm. The last one account for as many as 128 million space garbage. It is also worth mentioning that 1 piece of debris of about 1 cm in size could reach a speed of up to 24,855 mph. The kinetic energy of such object hitting something in the space is equal to an exploding grenade, which could completely devastate any satellite. That being said, ESA confirmed that its specialists are aware of the possibility of such collision, and thus were forced to put this into account while creating new satellites. Strengthening spacecrafts is nowadays necessary to help them become more resilient to a difficult space environment.

How to fight with space pollution?

According to Gordon Wasilewski from Polish Academy of Science we have three paths to overcome or at least minimalize space’s devastation:

  1. Passivating – if there are residual amounts of fuel in an upper stage rocket or satellite, they must be fully used up and disconnected, those eliminating the possibility of the object spontaneously exploding when it is no longer operational,
  2. Deorbiting the satellite – if the orbit on which the satellite was moving is less than 2 thousand km away from Earth, then within 25 years the operator will lower it enough to burn in the atmosphere, and if higher than 2 thousand – satellites should move to graveyard orbit,
  3. The active method – recycling the satellite – refuelling the satellite so it can correct its course for longer and if necessary, also to replace its systems with newer ones, instead of sending a new satellite up.

Taking into consideration the latest commercial trips into the space of people like billionaires Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), we must presume that the space tourism market will only be growing. It is therefore the best time now to take advantage of the media popularity and use it to make the public as well as decision makers aware, that space environment must be protected just like the Earth environment is. If we do not act now, any future space endeavours may be under threat from space trash.


  1. NASA; Space Debris and Human Spacecraft
  2. ESA Space Environment Report 2021
  3. Podcast Dział Zagraniczny “ Kto posprząta śmieci w kosmosie”

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