How Much Space Junk Orbits Earth?

Space Junk

Did you know there is over 5500 tons of space junk above Earth’s surface? The majority of space junk is within the 700 to 36,000 kilometer range orbit.

If you’ve seen the academy award-winning film “Gravity”, you’d probably think space is a pretty scary place.

A collision from a Russian rocket launch sparks a chain reaction causing debris to circle every 90 minutes.

Even the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope were part of the wreckage. It’s not entirely implausible. But it’s unlikely because everything is on different orbits.

The space junk problem is a man-made one. Here’s why there’s been a rise in space debris.

READ MORE: Check out the full-size space junk infographic

What started the rise of space junk?

Space Junk Orbit

Space junk is another problem that has arisen over the years and has gotten worse. But first, let’s define what it actually means.

Space junk consists of parts that were once used by satellites or rockets that are still floating in orbit that we can’t bring back down to Earth.

There are an estimated 21,000 objects >10 cm and 500,000 objects <10 cm of space debris. Two incidents increased space debris over 60%:

  • China anti-satellite mission in 2007
  • Collision of Iridium33 and Cosmos 2251

Who keeps tabs on satellites and space junk?

Satellite

There are approximately 1000 operational satellites in orbit and this number has been steadily increasing over the years.  One reason they don’t collide with each other is that they are continually being monitored by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

They keep a database of all known rocket launches and each orbit. If there was a critical type of scenario, satellites do have mini jet thrusters to move them around in orbit.

In the case of onset collision, these thrusters can be used for safety. But these thrusters are also used for repositioning themselves in orbit to improve their own functionality.

So what are the triggers that could cause space debris? Here are three:

  1. Satellites colliding with other geostationary or non-geostationary satellites,
  2. Space debris or dead satellites stunning another satellite, or
  3. Asteroids or micro meteorites hitting satellites are hard to predict. That’s why NASA’s Near Earth Object Program keeps a close eye on asteroids.

How do we map out space junk?

Silently, satellites gather volumes of data about our planet in various spectra.

With a grand total of 13,955 satellites loaded in this satellite web map, you begin to see how vast our satellite ecosystem is.

Each satellite orbits around the Earth in a predictable trajectory.

Filter between junk and non-junk and country of origin.

Space Junk

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