Tracking orbital trash

In the visualization above, each of the white dots is a piece of orbital garbage in Low Earth Orbit (1,240 miles above the planet) that NASA is currently tracking. ScienceNews posted an article about "the largest junkyard in the solar system," explaining how the trash is monitored and why it can be incredibly dangerous. The feature is in their "For Kids" section but I found it quite informative myself. From ScienceNews:
There are some unusual things up there, like a camera that floated away from astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams in December 2006. Other astronauts have lost tools like wrenches and screwdrivers. In 1965 astronaut Ed White even lost a spare glove. Most of the junk, however, comes from large satellites and rockets that fell apart after they stopped working.

Together, all the space junk would weigh about 11 million pounds on Earth, or more than 3,000 cars. The largest piece is a part of a rocket about the size of a minivan. The smallest piece would fit on your pinkie fingernail with room to spare...

Space junk races around the Earth at breakneck speeds. Most pieces fly through space at more than 20 times the speed that sound travels on Earth. Going that fast, even the smallest pieces mean big trouble for spacecraft. For example, a tiny marble in orbit around the Earth can have as much energy as a bowling ball going 500 miles per hour, or a car going 30 miles per hour.
"The Solar System's Biggest Junkyard" (ScienceNews)


  1. It’s worth noting that the scale of the dots in the visualization is a bit misleading. Surely, there’s a lot of space junk out there, but if the situation was really as it appears in the image, we wouldn’t have to worry about global warming for lack of sunlight.

    There’s a nice discussion of graphical scales in visualizations here (specifically discussing this graphic):

  2. I suggest we clear out the garbage with one or two wedge-shaped ships with high directional thrust, unlimited photon-ball ammo, and a hyperspace button for emergency relocation to avoid collisions. Replacement ships may be made available every 10,000 hits, but must watch out for the little flying saucers which are known to be hostile. Engineers at Atari may be able to help with construction.

  3. I’m sure it has been pointed out before but, there is an anime/manga where the main characters are space trash collectors. The series is short and pretty awesome.

  4. It’s incredible to think of how filthy and messed-up the earth has become in just the past 100 years. We humans have trashed the place. Imagine how clean it must have been before the days of plastic, space junk, jet exhaust, oil spills, nuclear waste, etc.

  5. she was walking all alone
    down the street in the alley
    her name was sally
    she never saw it
    when she was hit by space junk
    in new york miami beach
    heavy metal fell in cuba
    angola saudi arabia
    on xmas eve said norad
    a soviet sputnik hit africa
    india venezuela (in texas
    it’s falling fast peru too
    it keeps coming
    and now i’m mad about space junk
    i’m all burned out about space junk
    oooh walk & talk about space junk
    it smashed my baby’s head
    and now my sally’s dead

  6. The Kessler Effect:
    Snip Kessler conducted groundbreaking research in the 1970s on the threat of orbital debris to satellites. His mathematical predictions that collisions would cascade into more and more collisions became known as the Kessler effect.

    Throw in some space weapons testing or blasting a few satellites out of orbit and low orbit satellites could be a thing of the past.

  7. Ok, I’ll go first… What was he doing carrying a spare glove in space? It’s not like you pop them off, misplace it, and pick up a spare when you want it back on. :)

  8. How long, on average, will it take all that stuff to orbital decay and burn up, I wonder? The article didn’t discuss that. A long time, I guess.

  9. RE: Ed White’s astronaut glove- in the Gemini program, spacewalks were performed by de-pressurizing the entire capsule and then climbing outside via the hatch- (no separate pressure chamber or “dock”) so when the capsule was depressurized and the hatch was open, things from inside the cabin could float out of the hatch if not secured- which is what happened- one of the extra gloves not used during the space walk floated out. Ed White’s co-astronaut, James McDivitt, remained inside the capsule taking pictures- be he also had to be suited up in a space suit during the same time; you can hear his comment about the glove floating outside on the official mission tapes as well as in the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon”

  10. We (as humans) should be so, so ashamed of this situation.

    Not only to the notion of humans-trashing-the-planet, which is bad enough, but if we ever dream to have a viable space-faring future we have stupidly created (and continue to create) a massive headfuck for the generations to come.

    Don’t we ever think of the secondary and tertiary consequences when we’re bravely forging ahead? A little pre-damage control might go an awful long way to ensuring our survival.

    This is not a rant about science or technology, it’s just good house-keeping.

  11. [quote]
    Most pieces fly through space at more than 20 times the speed that sound travels on Earth. Going that fast, even the smallest pieces mean big trouble for spacecraft. For example, a tiny marble in orbit around the Earth can have as much energy as a bowling ball going 500 miles per hour, or a car going 30 miles per hour.

    That is assume that it hits a stationary object. The Space Shuttle travels at roughly 17600 MPH, 23 times the speed of sound. Debris floating around our great big planet poses a higher threat to something trying to stay stationary than another object moving at the same speed.

  12. doesn’t it make sense for countries run by religious fanatics and at technological disadvantage to throw up crappy rockets that barely make it to orbit and disgorge huge amounts of shrapnel – just to deny the high ground to the enemy? Between a High Altitude Nuclear Explosion for EMPing the foe and sweeping all their surveillance from the skies with injected garbage, folks like Little Kimmie (or Dead Little Kimmie?) can cause a heck of a lot of trouble. Or maybe when the fundies finally take over the White House openly, they’ll do it to keep people’s eyes on the ground.

  13. ‘junklight’ is mentioned in “Against a Dark Background” by Ian M. Banks. It was the light reflected off space junk.

  14. I can hear the memebers of the Advanced Civilizations Association already: “And you should have seen their yard! Trash everywhere. We are not inviting them to join the club!”

    We are such a messy group of primates.

  15. The surest way to deny the use of Space is to launch a number of rockets loaded with thousands, even millions of ball bearings, so that, when released, will circle and collide with anything and everything for hundreds of years.

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