From Space Age to Garbage Age?

December 3, 2016

Sputnik was a tiny satellite launched by the Soviet Union (now Russia) in 1957. It was tasked to do two simple things: 1) send beeping signals from outer space back to Earth and 2) self-destruct before falling back into the earth’s atmosphere. No problem! But you know what else it did? It launched the space race (a race between the Soviet Union and the United States to see who would conquer space exploration first).

What began as a race between two countries, soon became an interest of other countries too. In the following years, a series of satellites were launched into space by various countries to explore space. Exciting right?

But there is also a consequence to all the space exploration: space garbage. Space garbage? Yes, space garbage.

When satellites and rockets launch into the atmosphere to explore, they often leave behind debris — discarded satellite shells, satellites that don’t work anymore, and used rocket parts. In fact, NASA and the United States Air Force have identified more than 500,000 pieces of space junk that’s floating around in outer space. This debris could cause collisions or create a cloud of satellite parts that could render (or make) the lower space orbit unusable.

Discussion: Should space agencies be responsible for the space junk that they leave behind from their science expeditions? What lessons can we learn from our own planet for managing garbage in space?