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NASA says there's too much space junk in orbit and it can hurt astronauts

The space agency says when orbital debris collides with satellites, it can take out GPS, internet, and television signals
Posted at 6:44 PM, Apr 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-10 20:44:19-04

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — You might think space is an infinite frontier with plenty of room for countless satellites to float around Earth. But NASA says there's only so much usable space around our planet, and it's being taken up by space junk.

"We discovered that orbital debris wasn't really behaving in ways that we were expecting," said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. "Some of them we can track and know where they are. Some of them can be managed to avoid each other, but many cannot."

NASA estimates around 12,000 satellites, functioning and non-functioning, are orbiting Earth right now. But millions of tiny objects, some just centimeters wide, can come together to create orbital debris flying 17,000 miles an hour.

"We are seeing events where large amounts of debris are traveling in a pack together, where u-oh, we see a huge spike in the probability for collision," said Melroy.

This can mean hitting satellites and knocking out GPS services, credit card transactions and television signals.

"We have space in our hands right now, we rely on it for banking, for tracking things across the sea, and the safety of aircraft. There's nothing that space does not touch," said Charity Weeden, Associate Administrator for Technology, Policy, and Strategy at NASA.

"So Astroscale U.S. is an on-orbit servicing company with the vision for safe development of space," said Krystal Scordo with the company.

The Denver-based aerospace company specializes in clearing paths for other satellites by removing the space debris, while also repairing broken satellites already in orbit.

"We can do things like grab objects in space that are no longer operational, we do that with magnets or robotic arms," said Scordo. "We should care about keeping space sustainable because we want to keep utilizing space, we want those services to keep enabling our everyday lives. And that's why space matters."

NASA says it's working with other space agencies and private companies to develop guidelines for being sustainable in space. They tell me it's important to do not only for our future but for the safety of astronauts today.

"Not to mention the fact that we have humans doing science in low earth orbit. And this is the number one risk to loss of the crew and loss of the space station," Melroy said.

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