Space Is Getting Too Crowded

Illustration of spacecrafts
Joe McKendry

Earth’s lower orbit is becoming a little cluttered, and the results could be catastrophic. About 5,450 successful rocket launches have taken place since Sputnik 1 left Earth on October 4, 1957. Approximately 8,950 satellites have been put into orbit. Of those, about 5,000 are still in space, though only 1,950 of them are operational. While Sputnik 1 did the decent thing and disintegrated upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, roughly 3,000 defunct satellites didn’t—they still circle the planet, large hunks of space junk. Though they rarely crash into one another, one collision, in February 2009, between a privately owned American communications satellite and a Russian military satellite, created more than 2,300 trackable fragments of space debris.

Estimates suggest that millions of pieces of junk far too small to be tracked are out in space too, mostly the result of spacecraft explosions. Because objects can travel at speeds of up to 17,500 miles an hour, even the tiniest speck of debris hurtling into the side of a spacecraft can cause significant harm. Space-shuttle windows have had to be replaced because of damage caused by mere paint flecks flying through space. And the debris keeps piling up as satellites have gotten smaller, cheaper, and easier to launch. In 2013, only 18 remote-sensing satellites were put into orbit. In 2017, the number was 177. Between 2018 and 2032, forecasts suggest, 3,979 satellites will be launched. Since doubling the number of objects in orbit could quadruple the risk of collisions, debris is sure to pile up faster than ever before.

— Adapted from The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space, by Peter Ward, published by Melville House

This article appears in the October 2019 print edition with the headline “Space Jammed.”