Five Facts on the Problem of “Outer Space Junk”

Satellites and other spacecraft are vital to communications, security, economic development, weather tracking, and environmental protection on Earth.  In 1998, the malfunctioning of a single satellite disabled radio and TV networks, pagers, ATMs, and credit card transactions, affecting millions of people in North America.  Learn about the mounting problem of outer space junk or debris with the following five facts from Learning Life.  

Thanks to Learning Life writer, Derrick Costa, for helping to research and write these facts.   


1) 1,000 satellites

There are currently some 1,000 operational satellites orbiting Earth.  These satellites belong to more than forty different countries.

2) 500,000 pieces of space junk

There are more than 500,000 pieces of space junk or debris — man-made debris (e.g., satellites, spacecraft, and pieces from these), and natural meteroids — that NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration) and other space agencies track.

3) 17,500 miles per hour

These pieces of space junk all move at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour, which is fast enough for even small pieces to do serious damage.

In 2009, an operational U.S. satellite and a defunct Russian satellite, each weighing more than 1,000 pounds and traveling 17,500 miles per hour, collided, creating almost 700 pieces of debris that could threaten operational satellites and spacecraft for decades.  Thus, the more debris, the more chances for collisions, and the more collisions, the more debris, creating a spiraling problem.

4) 25 sticks of dynamite

A piece of debris the size of just a tennis ball is about as destructive as 25 sticks of dynamite.  Space agencies can more accurately track pieces 4 inches/10 centimeters or larger in diameter, and call on satellites or human-operated spacecraft to engage in evasive maneuvers when they have sufficient notice.  But sometimes they do not have sufficient notice, and even smaller pieces of debris can pose a serious threat as they are harder to track yet can still do serious damage.

5) Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines

In 2008 the United Nations General Assembly adopted these guidelines which call for limiting the number of satellites and other space equipment that are no longer in operation.  These guidelines are voluntary, not mandatory, though.  Nations continue to abandon equipment in outer space after they have completed their missions and ceased operating, which is why some are calling for nations to be required to remove their space junk from outer space.


Sources for the above five facts:

United Nations.  “Space Debris: Orbiting Debris Threatens Sustainable Use of Outer Space.”

National Aeronautics & Space Administration.  “Space Debris and Human SpaceCraft.”

For more information, see also:

European Space Agency.  “Mitigating Space Debris Generation.”