Humanity has a serious space junk problem.

On the evening of Oct. 24, NASA announced a maneuver to give the International Space Station “an extra measure of distance” from a fragment of debris (its size wasn’t indicated) passing just miles away. The debris comes from Russia’s dubious decision (according to top space debris experts) to blow up its around 4,850-pound Cosmos 1408 satellite in late 2021 with a missile. The explosion created a new ring of debris around Earth.

“We’re going to see consequences from this particular event for the next few decades,” Hugh Lewis, a professor of astronautics at the University of Southampton who researches space debris, told Mashable last year. “It wasn’t a good outcome. It was never going to be a good outcome.”

“There wasn’t a worse target to aim for with respect for human spaceflight,” Lewis added.

NASA, whose leader Bill Nelson said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” is now contending with the relatively new, problematic space junk.

There are currently seven people aboard the space station, which includes three U.S. astronauts, three Russian cosmonauts, and a Japanese astronaut.

To move the ISS, the space station fired thrusters from Russia’s Progress 81 spacecraft (attached to the station) for just over five minutes. NASA’s flight controllers watch over and direct the station’s activities at ISS Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Russia operates its Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev, which is outside Moscow.

“The thruster firing occurred at 8:25 p.m. EDT and the maneuver had no impact on station operations. Without the maneuver, it was predicted that the fragment could have passed within about three miles from the station,” the U.S. space agency said in a statement. The move was called a “Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver.”

A considerable amount of debris already zips around our planet. “There are approximately 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth,” NASA explains. “They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.” The Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network currently tracks much of this debris, though there are many more tiny pieces in orbit.

The mounting issue with space junk is that it can create increasingly more debris. As Mashable previously reported:

The looming problem is that space debris spawns more space debris, specifically by increasing the odds for more collisions. In 2009, for example, the defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 slammed into an Iridium communication satellite, creating some 2,000 pieces of debris four inches or larger along with countless tiny fragments. In 2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield spotted a “bullet hole” in a space station solar panel — from either space junk or a small meteorite. Humanity has already put large amounts of debris into orbit around Earth, and its impacts are serious and growing. “Spent rockets, satellites, and other space trash have accumulated in orbit increasing the likelihood of collision with other debris,” NASA wrote in 2016.

Over the coming three or four decades, if enough debris eventually accumulates, a runaway cascade of collisions will ensue, an extreme event dubbed the “Kessler Syndrome” by Don Kessler, a former senior scientist for orbital debris research at NASA. In 2018, Kessler expressed worry to Mashable about SpaceX’s plans to launch thousands of Starlink satellites into Earth’s orbit. Already, the private space company has launched over 1,800 satellites, with plans for thousands more. SpaceX has plans to deorbit failing or old satellites into Earth’s atmosphere, but the sheer number of satellites still means a lot of objects zipping around the planet. Among other mega-satellite constellations, Amazon plans to launch over 3,200 satellites, too.

Ideally, derelict satellites and spacecraft are managed so they gradually fall into the atmosphere and burn up, in a process called atmospheric drag. NASA, and its space partners, will continue to contend with the debris created by the blown-up Cosmos 1408 satellite.

“This debris field will expand in size and spread in a ring around the Earth that will likely remain on orbit to threaten other space objects for years to come.”

“This debris field will expand in size and spread in a ring around the Earth that will likely remain on orbit to threaten other space objects for years to come,” the Secure World Foundation, an organization promoting sustainable and peaceful uses of space, said in a statement last year. “Regardless of rationale, to deliberately create orbital debris of this magnitude is extremely irresponsible.”

This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2022.

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