In 2020, over 19,000 individually tracked space debris was in orbit above Earth. Of these, only 2,200 were operational satellites. As more and more satellites ascend, the risk of collision increases. And what are governments doing to stop it? Basically nothing.
In addition to the 19,000 known pieces of space junk, an estimated 15,000 pieces more than 10 cm in diameter whip around the earth. There are an estimated one million pieces that are larger than an inch.
In 2007, the Chinese government conducted an anti-satellite missile test by firing a “kinetic killing vehicle” (essentially a rocket-fired bullet) at a failed weather satellite. That single incident generated over 3,000 tracked and monitored pieces of space junk, many of which remain in orbit today.
On February 10, 2009, a communications satellite managed by the Iridium company collided with an old Russian military satellite. Both satellites were wiped out, resulting in over 2,000 cataloged space junk.
As satellite internet companies continue to bring fleets of “mega constellations” into orbit, the risk of collisions increases over time.
While drag in our atmosphere can clear away some small pieces of space junk, we are dangerously close to a turning point. Called Kessler syndrome, after the NASA scientist who first outlined the possibility, space debris collisions can transition into more collisions that create even more junk, which creates even more space debris and gets out of control until near-Earth orbit is completely inaccessible for a generation is.
What do we do with all this space junk? Not much at the moment. The US Space Surveillance Network (part of the Space Force) monitors space debris and issues warnings, but it is up to the individual satellite operators to make decisions about maneuvers.
Proposals for the disposal of space debris abound, but all solutions are expensive and ineffective. The current global strategy is to… start and keep your fingers crossed.