Space Junk Poses 'A Very Serious Threat' To Future Missions, Scientists Warn

'The debris is one of humankind’s greatest environmental challenges'

More than 100 million pieces of space junk orbiting Earth present a “very serious” threat to future space exploration, a British scientist has warned.

“Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind’s greatest environmental challenges, but is also perhaps the one that is the least known,” said Hugh Lewis, head of astronautics research at the University of Southampton.


Lewis was speaking at the launch of a Royal Astronomical Society project aiming to highlight the risks posed by the 27,000 pieces of junk currently being tracked as they orbit Earth, AFP reported.

Artists and scientists have come together under the project, titled “Adrift”, to use film sound and social media to explore the threat of space junk.

In total more than 100 million pieces orbit Earth, but the vast majority are too small to track.

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Travelling at a speed of up to 27,000 kilometres an hour, the debris from previous space missions now imperils satellites, rocket launches and astronauts operating on space walks, according to scientists.

“Every day, we use and rely on services provided by satellites without ever realising how vulnerable they are,” Lewis said.

In a documentary showcased at Adrift, Piers Sellers, a British-American meteorologist and astronaut, recalls the threat posed by space junk:

“Space debris as an operating astronaut, it was just enemy... It’s a sleet of very fast-moving stuff.”

The Vanguard I satellite.
The Vanguard I satellite.
George Rinhart via Getty Images

The oldest existing piece of space debris is Vanguard, the second US satellite launched into space.

Visitors to the exhibition at Hackney House, which opens next year, will be able to adopt Vanguard and other junk on Twitter.

The project also lets visitors follow the paths of different pieces of debris through sound.

Nick Ryan, a BAFTA-winning composer and sound artist, has recorded 1,000 sounds to transform data about items’ movements into music.

Last week SpaceX filed an application to the FCC to launch more than 4,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit in an attempt to rebuild the internet in space.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, previously said that the satellites would operate at a low orbit free of existing space junk.

But he added SpaceX would ensure the satellites can be dealt with effectively when they are decommissioned.

“[They will] burn up on reentry and have the debris kind of land in the Pacific somewhere,” Musk said.

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