A growing—and shrinking—problem
Humans have a tendency to build up piles of discarded material on Earth, said Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer at The Aerospace Corporation. “We dump it into the ocean or whatever, and assume the Earth absorbs it. We’ve done the same in space.”
Approximately 1,800 active satellites already orbit the planet, and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Boeing have proposed launching new satellite constellations in the coming years — on the order of hundreds or tens of thousands.
Those satellites could expand internet access to rural areas, improving the lives of millions around the globe. But once they’ve served their purpose, they, too, might become part of the orbiting trash field.
A piece of space junk will meet one of two fates. It will either slow down enough to fall back toward Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. Or it will smash into another piece of space trash, producing more, smaller projectiles with orbits of their own.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler proposed a catastrophic scenario where colliding space junk creates a cascade that breeds an impenetrable cloud of fragments in lower Earth orbit. This “Kessler Syndrome” could make space travel and satellite communications impossible for years at a time. In other words, say so long to Skype, weather forecasts, GPS and military surveillance.