Posted at 10:44 AM ET, 09/02/2011

Space debris overwhelming Earth’s orbit, report says

The contrail from the re-entry of a piece of space debris blows in the wind above York, Pa., Sept. 6, 2001. (Jason Plotkin/Associated Press)

Thousands of pieces of junk orbit the Earth. And a new report is calling on NASA to clean it all up. Don Kesller, a former NASA scientist, said in a report for the National Research Council, that the space debris has reached a “tipping point.”

The problem: pieces of debris, mostly from old satellites, broken rocket ships and other paraphernalia left over from our collective space travels, collide with one another, creating more debris in a “collision cascade.” They also can re-enter the atmosphere, raining debris down onto earth and can collide with functioning space ships. The International Space Station had a near miss with a piece in June.
On the left is the region of space within 2,000 kilometers of the Earth's surface to show the most concentrated area for orbital debris. On the right, a more distant vantage of the clutter above us. (NASA Orbital Debris Program Office/Johnson Space Center)

There are more than 22,000 pieces big enough for NASA to track, and possibly millions of smaller pieces. The report calls on NASA to figure out a plan to clean up the debris.

The news isn’t all bad, though, says writer Konstantin Kakaes in Slate: “Doing so will be expensive and require a huge leap in space technology. But this investment of money and brainpower will not just solve our space-junk conundrum. It may help us in the next phase of space exploration,” he writes.

By  |  10:44 AM ET, 09/02/2011

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