Did you watch the 2013 movie Gravity? Then you know what space junk is capable of. Not only did it ruin Sandra Bullock's day, it knocked out communications worldwide. Space junk is just that – little bits and pieces from dead satellites and the like still orbiting our planet, but doing so at 17,500 miles per hour. That's something like 10 times faster than a speeding bullet. There's a possibility for a cascading event where one device's destruction starts a chain reaction, and as our hunger for ever-present and ultra-fast data grows, the chances of an event like that grow.
Telecommunications and technology companies are hoping to launch global broadband networks made up of thousands of small satellites put in low orbit around the earth. University of Southampton's Dr. Hugh G. Lewis brings us the news, and it's not good. A 200-year simulation of the increased traffic up there could create a 50-percent increase in the frequency of these collisions. It'd be more targets to hit and more objects aiming for them.
Right now, we have no way to get rid of all the junk already up there. Organizations like NASA and the European Space Agency track debris the best they can. In 2013, NASA had 20,000 objects the size of a softball or larger in orbit of the earth, and well over 500,000 marble-sized objects. Trying to snatch these items out of orbit would be like trying to play catch with a hand grenade that's definitely going to explode on contact.
Let's try not to make even more trash
Scientists are worried that these companies don't have the orbital experience to make something like a global network work without causing more problems than it solves.
The Guardian spoke to the ESA's head of space debris, Dr. Holger Krag (there's the coolest name you'll hear today), who worries about the priorities of these companies. They have competitors, investors, and pressure that an organization like the ESA doesn't. The ESA wants these small devices to have the fuel to drop into lower altitudes once they're done doing their jobs, so that they can burn up in the atmosphere, and Holger sees those companies having difficulty making satellites that could reliably perform the maneuver.
"Right now, under all the taxpayer-funded space flight we are doing today is only able to achieve 60 percent of success rate for that maneuver," he said. "How can they be better under commercial pressure and with cheaper satellites?"
Whether we're sending up humans, monkeys, or hunks of metal, space is brutal and unforgiving, and going up there with a laser focus on profits could end up backfiring not just for the companies putting up the satellites, but for other satellites, ship launches, and more.