This was the state of space debris in 2008 according to the European Space Operations Centre. The amount of space debris has now become so large that it is threatening economically vital orbital regions.
Space junk is an enormous problem. It’s also a very small problem. We’ve littered the skies with old gloves, lost bolts and dead satellites. Yes, space is big, but the danger is real.
I mean, have you seen the trailer for Alfonso Cuaron’s new movie Gravity? It’s utterly terrifying, and it illustrates precisely the havoc that space debris can wreak on men and machines in space. Also, space death is a silent death, so that makes it doubly terrifying. But I digress …
According to NASA, there are 20,000 pieces of known orbital debris larger than a softball. There are more than 500,000 pieces of debris larger than a marble. But the junk doesn’t have to be that big to do damage. Even a fleck of paint, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, can crack the windshield of the space shuttle.
To find out more, I highly, highly suggest reading this long but amazing article by my Wired colleague Adam Mann: Space: the Final Frontier of Environmental Disasters