There’s so Much Space Junk in Orbit it’s Threatening Lives Here on Earth

What goes up, must eventually come down, and we’re edging closer to the possibility of some of that junk crashing back down into a populated area.

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A photo of a space rocket launching a satellite into orbit.
How much more space is up there?
Photo: Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

Space is pretty damn cool. It’s full of planets, stars, weird gaseous formations and probably some funky looking life forms that we may never be able to prove exist. But one thing we can be sure of is that there’s a ton of junk in space.

The most recent estimates say there are more than 30,000 chunks of space junk orbiting the Earth right this second. That’s more than one piece of junk for every person living in Monterey, California, right this second.

But it might be about time for all the Monterey natives to go and claim their chunk of junk, as space is filling up to dangerous levels, according to a recent interview published in Ars Technica.

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The site spoke to Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist from the University of Texas at Austin. An astrodynamicist is someone who studies paths of motion in space, they’re important when plotting rocket flight paths and orbits for things like satellites and space station.

A photo of a space rocket launching at night.
Competition for space.
Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP (Getty Images)
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And Jah, who also works to track and share space debris data, is pretty worried about the amount of shit floating around above the Earth.

Jah warns that orbits above Earth are becoming “saturated,” meaning that there is limited capacity to launch more important satellites into space. As orbits fill up, collisions between craft become more likely, which causes more rogue debris that can in turn crash into more stuff. It’s a never ending cycle. According to Jah:

“I think we are going to lose the ability to use certain orbits because the carrying capacity is going to get saturated by objects and junk. Orbital capacity being saturated means ‘when our decisions and actions can no longer prevent undesired outcomes from occurring.’ So if we’re trying to minimize having to move out of the way or bumping into each other, and no matter what we do we can’t avoid that, that means that for all intents and purposes, that orbit highway is no longer usable.”

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But, it gets worse. That’s because Jah thinks that the sheer quantity of crap up there means that there could be a risk to life back on Earth. He told Ars Technica:

“I also predict that we will see a loss of human life by (1) school-bus sized objects reentering and surviving reentry and hitting a populated area, or (2) people riding on this wave of civil and commercial astronauts basically having their vehicle getting scwhacked by an unpredicted piece of junk. I predict that both those things are going to happen in the next decade.”

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It’s a fascinating interview that paints a pretty bleak picture of life just outside our own atmosphere. But, despite the stark warnings Jah has for the future of low-earth orbit, he does have some hope.

A photo of Moriba Jah, Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding from Privateer Space.
Left - right: Moriba Jah, Steve Wozniak, and Alex Fielding
Image: Privateer Space
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He told Ars technica that he has met with countless people who have plans to tackle the problem of space junk. And, his new role with the Privateer Space company, founded by Steve Wozniak, is also looking to tackle the issue.

The company collects and shares tracking data for space debris with companies working on new methods of clearing our skies.

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There was also good news from the U.S. government earlier this year, which finally came up with a plan for how to start tackling all this space junk. Fingers crossed it can start being acted upon before any of Jah’s predictions come true.

The whole interview is fascinating and can be read in full right here.