- Tens of thousands of objects have rocketed into space since the start of the Space Race.
- Most objects are hunks of space junk moving at speeds of roughly 17,500 mph.
- The US government maintains an online catalogue of which countries are responsible for the objects in orbit around Earth, and what they are.
- Russia, the United States, and China have created and deorbited the most space debris.
China’s first space station, called Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace,” will fall to its fiery doom on or around April 1.
But the 9.4-ton spacecraft is just one of thousands of large human-made objects zipping around Earth at roughly 17,500 mph, or about 10 times as fast as a speeding bullet.
This is not good.
The more objects there are in orbit – especially large, uncontrolled space stations, used rocket parts, and dead satellites – the greater the chances are for a catastrophic chain-reaction of collisions and debris creation, called a Kessler syndrome event. Such a disaster could shut off large swaths of space to astronauts and new satellites for generations.
“This debris can stay up there for hundreds of years,” Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer and atmospheric reentry specialist who works for the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, previously told Business Insider, adding that objects in higher orbits (e.g. geostationary satellites) can circle Earth for thousands of years.
Luckily, the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) keeps an eye out for satellites and space debris using ground-based radar stations and optical telescopes, plus some observatories in space.
Right now, it’s tracking about 23,000 objects larger than a softball above Earth, and roughly 14,000 of these are uncontrolled – and at risk of creating more debris.
Which countries launch the most stuff into space
Most objects are in low-Earth orbit, roughly 25o miles above the planet. Fewer satellites are launched to geostationary orbits, or about 22,300 miles high.
But what goes up usually comes down in space. Earth’s outermost atmosphere drags and slows down objects over time, causing them to fall, burn up, and, in some cases, crash into the ocean or land.
Publicly available orbital-tracking data from SSN is fed into the website Space-Track.org (registration required), which is contracted by the US Strategic Command.
Here are the top 10 countries and organisations with the most objects in space and what they are, based on data downloaded on March 28, 2018:
Russia has the most stuff in space, with 6,512 objects in orbit. The US is second with 6,262 objects.
Considering that rocket bodies are a type of large space debris, Russia is arguably the messiest in space, with 4,994 uncontrolled objects. The US is a close second with 4,684 uncontrolled objects.
China has only recently ramped up its space program, yet it’s in a close third with 3,601 hunks of space junk; this is because the nation destroyed one of its own satellites in a 2007 anti-satellite weapons test.
Satellite consortiums like Intelsat, SES, and Globalstar make the top 10, though they are relatively small space-junk contributors, since most of their objects are active satellites.
Space-Track.org also shows which countries have had the most stuff fall from space:
Russia is a clear historical winner, with 21,661 objects that have crashed to Earth. The US has deorbited about 12,453 about half as much deorbited stuff.
China, which is a relative newcomer to space that launched its first satellite in 1970, has lost about 5,213 objects to a fiery doom.
Everything Space-Track.org lists is just a small fraction of the total number of objects.
According to the European Space Agency, there may be 670,000 bits of debris larger than a fingernail up there and perhaps 170 million pieces of debris larger than 1 millimetre – objects like flecks of paint and fragments of explosive bolts used on rockets.
How to clean up outer space
Getting old spacecraft out of orbit is key to preventing the formation of space junk, and many space agencies and corporations now build spacecraft with systems to de-orbit them.
But Ailor and others are eager to push the development of new technologies and methods that can lasso, bag, tug, and otherwise remove the old, uncontrolled stuff that’s already up there and continues to pose a threat.
“I’ve proposed something like a XPRIZE or a Grand Challenge, where would you identify three spacecraft and give a prize to an entity to remove those things,” he said.
The biggest hurdle in defeating space debris, however, is likely human.
“It’s not just a technical issue. This idea of ownership gets to be a real player here,” Ailor said. “No other nation has permission to touch a US satellite, for instance. And if we went after a satellite … it could even be deemed an act of war.”
Ailor said someone needs to get nations together to agree on a treaty that spells out laws-of-the-sea-like salvage rights to dead or uncontrollable objects in space.
“There needs to be something where nations and commercial authorities have some authority to go after something,” he said.