Before humans first started sending objects into Earth orbit, the pocket of space around our planet was clear and clean. But the launch of Sputnik 1 in October of 1957 changed everything. Since then, the space debris has been accumulating, with the amount of useless, defunct satellites vastly outnumbering the operational objects in our orbit.
A new annual report from the European Space Agency (ESA) has found that while we have become aware of the problem and taken steps in recent years to mitigate it, those steps are currently not keeping up with the sheer scale of space junk.
All spacefaring nations have contributed to the problem, which is significant: as more and more defunct objects populate near-Earth space, the risk of collision rises – which, as objects crash and shatter, produces even more space debris.
The hazards have been prominent in the last year. We have not only watched as two large dead satellites very nearly collided, but the International Space Station has had to undertake emergency manoeuvres three times to avoid colliding with space debris.
But collisions are not even close to being the biggest problem, according to the ESA’s report. In the last 10 years, collisions were responsible for just 0.83 percent of all fragmentation events.
“The biggest contributor to the current space debris problem is explosions in orbit, caused by left-over energy – fuel and batteries – onboard spacecraft and rockets,” said Holger Krag, head of the ESA’s Space Safety Programme.
“Despite measures being in place for years to prevent this, we see no decline in the number of such events. Trends towards end-of-mission disposal are improving, but at a slow pace.”
The space junk problem was first raised in the 1960s, but it