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April 25, 2019

Space junk: Earth’s most egregious cosmic litterbug, revealed (hint: it’s us)

November 28, 2018
Hundreds of thousands of satellites and pieces of space debris circle the planet in low orbit, zipping by at more than 17,000 miles per hour. The size of yellow points are exaggerated for visibility. (NASA)

Just as the Pacific Ocean has a swirling gyre of plastic, the skies above Earth’s atmosphere are cluttered with a garbage patch of their own, comprised of more than 20,000 satellite shards and other debris chunks.

A company called RS Components has created a graphic showing who owns what, and who turns out to be number one? Why the United States, of course. But, at 4,037 items, we’re only two pieces of cosmic crud ahead of Russia, which has littered space with 4,035 pieces of debris. China is allegedly number three, with 3,524 pieces, France brings up the rear with 334, and other nations offer a combined total of 259.

A good 95 percent of the detritus is dead or inactive satellites, whole or dismembered, according to the journal Nature. The danger of these “zombies” varies, but generally the working satellites are constantly dodging potential impacts. Even a paint-chip-sized shard can crack a window pane.

Even something as small as a paint chip can cause considerable damage to working satellites, or the International Space Station. It’s serious enough that NASA has an Orbital Debris Program Office, which is monitoring the situation and working to both reduce and prevent the debris buildup. This NASA video shows how cosmic litter flows around the Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA) is doing the same.

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