Since Sputnik 1 (4 October 1957 to be precise), we’ve been littering the space around our planet with debris. Dr. Stuart Grey at University College London and part of the Space Geodesy and Navigation Laboratory has created an interactive visualisation that tells the story of how it has accumulated from 1957 to 2015, using data on the precise location of each piece of junk, larger than 10 centimeters, from space-track.org.
The 20,000 items of space junk, ranging from the size on an apple to the size of a bus, currently trapped in Earth’s orbit include old engine parts, old rockets, abandoned satellites and other floating junk generated by space missions or from collisions in space. The mesmerizing video is taken from an interactive graphic published as part of ‘A Place in Space’, the Royal Institution’s advent calendar.
— Michael L-A (@CommanderMLA) December 30, 2015
It is estimated there are as many as 370,000 pieces of space junk floating in Earth’s orbit, traveling at speeds of up to 22,000 mph. According to NASA:
There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.
The first piece of man-made space junk was the body of the rocket used to launch Sputnik, the first artificial satellite launched by the USSR in 1957 followed by Explorer 1, the first effort from the USA, in 1958. By the first manned mission in 1961, there were already 200 objects orbiting the Earth, with low Earth orbit starting to get packed with debris as man stepped foot on the moon in 1969.
Humans litter everywhere,Watch 60 Yrs of Space Junk accumulated around the Earth, abt 20000 pieces of space debris https://t.co/Ek6ig5QWRT
— Abhilash Sidd (@abhilash99) December 24, 2015
With the establishment of the International Space Station in 1998, there were around 9,000 objects in a stable orbit. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,000 pieces to the debris. In 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning US Iridium commercial satellite. The collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk. By the time we reached 2015, the massive swarming mass of objects had already obscured the view of the Earth.
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