You can’t make this stuff up.

A target for the European Space Agency’s ClearSpace-1 mission couldn’t wait for garbage collection day in the agency’s planned 2026 test mission. It got clobbered by another piece of space debris, rending it into pieces.

The 250 lb rocket adapter, left over from a 2013 Vega launch, was the target for a test project to pave the way towards cleaning up the large, orbital debris field that encircles our planet. Now the guys and gals at ESA will have to most likely pick another target, hopefully one that will cooperate and wait unscathed until collection day this time.

Space Junk Everywhere

Orbiting space junk has become a bigger problem every year since humans first began going to space in 1957. It has become a concern that has not even escaped the notice of Hollywood, being addressed by the 2013 Warner Brothers Motion Picture Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, wherein debris from a destroyed spy satellite shot down by the Russians disables the space shuttle Explorer while the movie’s two stars are in orbit attempting to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The resultant expanding cloud of ricocheting space debris is based on the theory of the Kessler effect, proposed by a NASA scientist in 1978 as a catastrophic cascade of debris colliding with each other, increasing the likelihood of more collisions, thus creating more and more debris. This is kind of like the opening break shot in a game of pool where the debris not only scatters like balls, but each “ball” self-destructs and sends more debris to scatter and break more targets into more debris in its wake until the resultant debris field barely allows for a clear, straight shot for a rocket to obtain orbit without ensuing any damage that could later become catastrophic either in orbit or on reentry.

A visualization of how much crap we have flying around in orbit right now. Much of this is old satellites and pieces of them that have come off over time. At orbital speeds, even being struck by a fleck of paint could take your arm off.

How Bad it Really Is Up There

To fully comprehend the depth of the problem, one must understand just how much junk is up there orbiting above our heads. To start with, there are an estimated 3,000 non-operational spacecraft jockeying for space – and that’s just the inactive ones. 

This may not seem like much considering the circumference of the Earth and the abundance of space that cradles these orbital interlopers until one also adds in the fact that hundreds more satellites are launched into the atmosphere each and every year. Spacex’s Starlink megaconstellation have added 4,000 currently active starlink craft to this number and are aiming to put another staggering 40,000 more into orbit eventually.

If this isn’t enough to impress, the European Space Agency estimates there are roughly 36,500 debris objects of a mere 4 inches wide, with another 1 million between 0.4 and 4 inches and a mind-numbing 330 million that are smaller than 0.4 inches, but bigger than .04 inches.

Such tiny pieces of debris may not seem like a hazard, but considering that this junk flies at about 17,100 mph, some serious damage can be inflicted upon active satellites if hit at just the right angle with a large enough piece.

Many solutions to the problem have been proposed, with a fascinating read on entitled “Space Junk Cleanup: Seven Wild Ways to Destroy Orbital Debris”. Among the solutions proposed has been snagging and moving, pushing debris, slowing down the speed of debris so it would fall closer to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, a slingshot, a solar sail and even using a burst of air to push satellites into a lower orbit. That doesn’t even cover a “magnetic docking technique” that would have been tested back in 2022 if it had not been halted due to “anomalous spacecraft conditions”. Considering the 7 Wild Ways article is 11 years old, one wonders how far we have actually come if we are still considering a good old-fashioned grabbing technique as worth another go.

Maybe what we’ll need to settle for in the end will just be a good, old fashioned United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol Cruiser and a bit of help from Quark.

Richard Benjamin, Tim Thomerson, Patricia Barnstable and the cast of the 1977 series ‘Quark’, about an outer space garbage collector and its crew.
David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.