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Space Debris Buildup Could Threaten Satellites, Space Travel


This past week, the International Space Station almost came into contact with space junk. That's the third time a near-collision has happened this year, and it's something scientists say will get worse if nothing is done to clean up space debris. The trash that circles our planet is from the last 63 years of space travel - broken bits of satellite and other items flying up to 18,000 miles per hour, often colliding and breaking apart into smaller pieces that themselves zoom and collide. And it could all lead to something called Kessler syndrome, where so many objects hit one another, creating so much debris that space becomes unusable. Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about space debris for this week's New Yorker, and he joins us now.


RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN: Thank you. It's very nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your piece begins with another story of a near-collision with the ISS a few years ago. What happened then?

KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. So that was back in 2015, and an object was projected to hit the ISS at 31,000 miles an hour. And it was detected within four hours, and that gave the ground control and the crew on the ISS very little time to deal with that. The incident that you mentioned that happened last week - they had time to move the ISS out of the way. And in this instance, they didn't. And so what they had to do was effectively hunker down in a Soyuz capsule, which was like kind of like a lifeboat, and cross their fingers and hope that it missed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is terrifying. I mean, how many objects are up there flying around, and how big are they?

KHATCHADOURIAN: So almost an uncountable number of objects. It's estimated that there are 8,000 metric tons of sort of human-engineered mass zooming around the planet. About 26,000 of those are of a size that the U.S. military can track, so 10 centimeters or larger. But when you get below the size of 10 centimeters, then you end up with, you know, something like a hundred million pieces that are the size of a millimeter or even a hundred trillion, the size of a micron. At the speeds we're talking about, something the size of a grain of sand can destroy an entire spacecraft.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we have the ISS up there, but we have a lot of other things that are sort of vital to our infrastructure here on Earth. I mean, could these objects damage other essential infrastructure up there?

KHATCHADOURIAN: So this Kessler syndrome that you talked about is happening now, which means that the rate of collisions - random collisions among objects in space are self-generating. One thing is smashing into another into another. And if that proceeds, a number of satellites that provide services here on Earth would be impossible to maintain. What is essential and what the experts who I spoke with really insisted upon is that debris has to be removed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how do you do that, exactly? I mean, I can't imagine you take a giant vacuum cleaner up there.

KHATCHADOURIAN: It's incredibly challenging. People have been now hypothesizing different methods, from using lasers to blasts of air to nets and harpoons or robotic pincers. And so we're at the phase now where, you know, a lot of these technologies are being tested for the first time. The math indicates that the problem has to be dealt with. Even if there is 90% compliance with all the rules that currently exist, we're talking about over a hundred percent increase in the amount of debris within 200 years. So even if we're following all the rules we've set for ourselves now, it's not enough. So there's a lot of work that still needs to be done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Raffi Khatchadourian is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest piece is called "The Trash Nebula."

Thank you very much.

KHATCHADOURIAN: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.