Space junk: faster than a speeding bullet, and more dangerous

Posted by Dick McNally
on Monday, October 09, 2006

If you think litter is a problem here on Earth, consider the junk that orbits our planet. From nuts and bolts to gloves and other stuff left over from space missions, this trash is downright dangerous.
Add to that the natural debris (meteroids) that orbit our planet, and you can see we have to be careful with our spacecraft and crews. That was demonstrated when a radiator on space shuttle Atlantis was punctured by a tiny piece of space debris during its recent mission. The hole was so small that it was not even noticed on the initial post-flight inspections by NASA.

According to NASA, the average impact speed of a piece of orbital debris running into another object is 22,370 mph.  At that speed, NASA says, a 9-pound piece of junk (say, a dropped tool bag) suddenly has the same impact as a 60-mph car.
A team of scientists tracks some 100,000 pieces of orbital debris (including meteoroids) 1-10cm wide, and about 11,000 that are even bigger. Their aim: to warn shuttle, space-station and satellite operators about possible collisions so they can take evasive action. Perhaps the piece that hit Atlantis was too small to be monitored by scientists – which just emphasizes the pervasiveness of the problem.
Yes, litter is a problem here on Earth.  But when you see someone throw a soda can out the window on the freeway, just be glad it’s not moving at 30 times the speed of sound like the trash orbiting 300 miles above it.

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