Space junk is a growing problem. What can we do about it?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Debris from a rocket launched by China crashed harmlessly into the Indian Ocean on Sunday, following days of uncertainty over where it might land. Most of the 20-ton section of the rocket burned up when reentering the atmosphere, but some pieces splashed down near the Maldives, according to China’s space agency. Prior to the crash, experts had warned that there was a small chance the debris could fall in a major city and cause severe damage.

This incident drew international attention because of the size of the rocket section and confusion over its potential trajectory, but space junk has become an everyday concern for scientists as launches become more frequent and Earth’s outer atmosphere becomes increasingly crowded with satellites. The risk of rocket parts falling into populated areas is increasing as more countries and private companies expand their space ambitions. The more pressing problem, most experts agree, is the danger that space debris circling the planet poses to critical satellite infrastructure and space exploration missions.

There are roughly 6,000 satellites currently orbiting the Earth, and more than half of them are now defunct. If they collide, they can splinter into thousands of pieces that could then strike other objects in orbit, potentially setting off a chain reaction that could destroy everything in its path and render whole sections of orbit unusable. In addition to larger objects, NASA estimates there are at least 26,000 pieces of debris the size of a softball or larger that — because of their extraordinary speed — could destroy satellites or spacecraft. There are also millions of smaller pieces, some the size of a grain of sand, that could puncture a spacesuit.

As much of a problem as space debris is today, it’s only going to get worse as companies like SpaceX pursue plans to launch thousands of communications satellites into orbit in the coming years.

Why there’s debate

There’s broad agreement among space experts that space junk is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Scientists have offered a variety of solutions — some based on new technologies, some centered on policy changes — to tackle the problem.

A handful of companies are working on systems that could in theory collect existing space junk, force it back into the atmosphere to burn up or push it deeper into space, where it poses less of a risk. Other proposals include requiring all new satellites to have backup thrusters that will push them out of Earth’s orbit, better ways of tracking debris and high-powered lasers that can change the orbits of potentially dangerous objects.

As promising as some of these concepts may be, many experts say space junk is more of a policy problem than a technological one. They argue that space needs a robust series of international laws, similar to the ones that govern the oceans and skies, to ensure that countries and private businesses are acting responsibly. That effort must start, many say, with major space powers like the U.S. and China putting aside their competitive ambitions and working together to create a sustainable long-term plan for how humans will utilize space.


All countries must work together to clean up space

“The major powers must elevate space governance to the level of other threats to humanity, from climate change to nuclear proliferation. They should publicly label the problem a tragedy of the commons and signal their readiness to begin negotiations, regardless of other conflicts they have with one another. The U.S. is the obvious nation to take the lead. China, Russia and others should reciprocate.” — Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg

A strong set of international laws is needed to guide space junk solutions

“Beyond the legal technicalities, debris removal raises complex policy, geopolitical, economic, and social challenges. Whose responsibility is it to remove debris? Who should pay? What rights do non-spacefaring nations have in discussions? Which debris should be preserved as heritage?” — Steven Freeland and Annie Handmer, Conversation

Emerging technologies will soon be able to remove unwanted debris from orbit

“Could the solution to eliminating dangerous space junk be a mini-fridge-sized spacecraft equipped with a big magnet, or maybe an orbiting tug that sends out a swarm of tentacles to trap a spent rocket? If all goes well, schemes like these may be the first steps in removing the growing constellation of metallic refuse orbiting Earth.” — Eric Niiler, Wired

More accountability is needed for countries that launch rockets unsafely

“Why is it possible for China, or any other space-faring nation, to launch massive rockets and let them fall to earth willy-nilly? The answer to that is policy failure: Despite regulations on space flight and conduct, the issue of rocket reentry is loosely and poorly regulated, so countries cut corners and take their chances that a falling rocket won’t hit anything major.” — Alex Ward, Vox

Improved debris-tracking methods will help prevent collisions

“In theory, satellite operators should have plenty of room for all these missions to fly safely without ever nearing another object. So some scientists are tackling the problem of space junk by trying to understand where all the debris is to a high degree of precision. That would alleviate the need for many unnecessary manoeuvres that today are used to avoid potential collisions.” — Alexandra Witze, Nature

The solution starts with recognizing the scale of the problem

“Until we acknowledge that the orbital spaces that surround Earth are a limited resource, Chicken Little is going to sound a little less paranoid and a lot more prescient.” — Seth Shostak, NBC News

The first step is to stop creating so much space junk in the first place

“From my perspective, the best solution to dealing with space debris is not to generate it in the first place. Like any environmental issue, it is easier and far less expensive to prevent pollution than to clean it up later. Stop leaving things in orbit after they have completed their mission.” — Space operations expert T.S. Kelso to Scientific American

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to

Read more “360”s

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images