Space is a pretty big place, but being humans, we’ve still managed to fill it with trash. The Earth is becoming enveloped in a cloud of debris, and now a U.S. military official has issued her concern with this growing problem. According to Space.com, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, has asked other countries and the private sector to help track all this cosmic garbage. The U.S. currently keeps tabs on about 22,000 pieces of debris, but there is just too much of the stuff for one country to handle.
Lt. Gen. Helms issued her concerns at the Sixth Annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Tel Aviv. We were not invited to the conference for an unprecedented sixth time in a row:
“Public provision of space situational awareness data through the SSA Sharing Program is evidence of the U.S. government’s commitment to provide SSA data to the world, free of charge, in order to enhance safe and responsible space operations and promote transparency.”
The SSA she refers to is “space situational awareness,” which is basically a map of crap that will mess with our space toys. It is estimated that over 300,000 pieces of debris larger than 1 cm. are orbiting the Earth. Space.com reports that last year alone, satellites had to be maneuvered 126 times to avoid being pelted with garbage. There are more than 60 nations operating in space, and Helms made it clear that the more of them that keep an eye out for debris, the better:
“We must partner with other nations and enterprises to achieve mutually beneficial goals, and at the top of our priorities is the development of comprehensive SSA.”
How does junk get into space in the first place, you ask? Spacewalkers lose their tools, rocket stages are discarded once a craft enters orbit, and countries occasionally just blow up satellites because countries are mean. China blew up a weather satellite in 2007 because they wanted to test out anti-satellite weaponry. (It worked.)
Orbiting machines sometimes collide, especially when certain spacecrafts think they own the road (cough, Soviets, cough):
A U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Soviet Cosmos spacecraft were destroyed in an unintended head-on collision in 2009. That incident added more than 1,000 pieces of trackable debris to the mess, adding to the number of possible targets and therefore upping the chances of future collisions.
The international effort to track space debris is merely at an, “Okay, that sounds like a good idea,” stage, with major details about how other nations can help out with this garbage yet to be hammered out. Until then, try to keep space clean and refrain from littering.