What’s the problem with space junk?

Above: Image © Petrovich9,iStockPhoto.com

Scientists think that China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, could crash into Earth. No one is sure exactly where or when, but scientist think it could happen in late March or early April 2018. 

When equipment in space falls to the Earth, it usually burns up when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. That means the chances of any of it hitting you are very small! But falling space stations are part of a bigger problem: space junk.

Space junk is a bit like litter left over from human space exploration. It ranges from small items left behind by astronauts, to bigger items - like space stations that don’t work anymore. Tiangong-1 stopped working in 2016.

NASA is keeping track of over 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth. But there’s plenty of debris they can’t keep track of. And the amount of space junk keeps growing. This could become a big problem. Let’s Talk Science volunteer Nathalie Ouellette explains:

The 2013 sci-fi movie Gravity showed astronauts in the middle of a very possible scenario called the Kessler effect. That’s a critical point at which the space junk has gotten so dense that a collision could start a domino effect of more and more collisions, eventually destroying almost everything out there!

This would be a disaster, since here on Earth we have grown very dependent on orbiting satellites. They help humans with everything from communications to navigation. This is why everyone from NASA to tech companies to entire governments are researching ways to get rid of the space junk that’s already out there!

Scientists are looking at rockets and lasers as possible ways to destroy space junk. 

Click here to read the full Let’s Talk Science article on space junk

Did you know? When she was in high school, science student Amber Yang developed a system for tracking space junk.

Let’s talk about it!

  • What are some examples of space junk mentioned in the article? Can you think of any others?
  • What is the Kessler effect?
  • Why would the Kessler effect be a problem for us on Earth?
  • Can you think of how the Kessler effect would affect your day-to-day life? What things might you not be able to use?
  • Do you think governments are doing enough about the space junk problem? Why or why not?


China's Tiangong-1 space station will crash to Earth within weeks (2018)
The Guardian

Frequently Asked Questions: Orbital Debris

Space Junk (2017)
Let’s Talk Science

The teenage scientist tracking a sea of space junk (2018)
BBC Future


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