China's Falling Satellite Is Just the Beginning of 'Catastrophic' Space Debris Problem

Wednesday, 10 January 2018 - 10:29AM
Wednesday, 10 January 2018 - 10:29AM
China's Falling Satellite Is Just the Beginning of 'Catastrophic' Space Debris Problem
< >
Image credit: YouTube

Here on Earth, we love our trash. Landfills are increasingly packed to the brim with refuse and non-recyclable materials, and pretty soon we're going to run out of room for all our garbage.


But humans are creating trash in space, too, of an astonishing volume. A 2013 study conducted by The European Space Agency found that there were more than 170 million pieces of debris larger than 1 mm floating around in space. Of that number, 670,000 pieces were larger than 1 cmn, and 29,000 were larger than 10 cm.    

"Any of these objects can cause harm to an operational spacecraft," the ESA said in their report.

"For example, a collision with a 10-cm object would entail a catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite, a 1-cm object would most likely disable a spacecraft and penetrate the ISS shields, and a 1-mm object could destroy sub-systems on board a spacecraft. Scientists generally agree that, for typical satellites, a collision with an energy-to-mass ratio exceeding 40 J/g would be catastrophic."

Catastrophic satellite fragmentation is just what's about to happen to China's Tiangong-1 Space Station, the 8.5 metric ton non-operational space station that first began operation in 2011.

Federally funded research organization The Aerospace Corporation predicts that the space station will land around the latitudes of 43° N and 43° S, according to the Aerospace Corporation, a federally-funded space research organization.

Though that area will be in the ocean, some of the lab's parts might still weigh up to 100kg (220 lbs) when they crash. That means more trash in our ocean.


The imminent fall of Tiangong-1 is only the most recent example of a space degree problem that makes us long for the existence of some gargantuan, zero-gravity, extraterrestrial Dustbuster.

China also infamously destroyed its Fengyun-1C weather satellite in January 2007 during a weapons test, creating some 3,300 fragments of debris in what was one of the most egregious examples of space pollution.


The U.S. Strategic Command's office of Joint Functional Component Command for Space has been tracking the amount of debris orbiting our planet, cataloging over 39,000 man-made objects from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 to 2014—and that doesn't even include natural occurrences like meteors. Using the Space Surveillance Network of 30 space surveillance sensors implementing radar and optical telescopes, USSTRATCOM found 16,000 objects orbiting Earth.

Of that number, 13,920 pieces are debris and/or inactive satellites.

Last November's Orbital Debris Quarterly newsletter released by NASA expands that number slightly, reporting that there are currently 18,747 artificial objects in space, which lists just 1,738 functional satellites and a whole lot of junk. That's an undoubtedly trashy scene.