When a satellite dies, it doesn’t get a proper burial. Many of the machines that we send to space don’t have any method of propulsion once they get there, so when they’re no longer in use they simply float in orbit around Earth, cluttering up the space around the planet.
As a result, Earth orbit is littered with thousands of broken-down satellites, bits of rockets, and debris from things colliding or blowing up, and these hurtle around at high speed. An accidental collision could take out a working satellite or even damage the International Space Station.
The problem is only getting bigger, with private firms planning to launch huge constellations of satellites to improve internet connections and other services around the world, and national space programmes proliferating and sending ever more objects into orbit. Many of these satellites will be in danger from speeding space junk, and will then someday become dangerous garbage themselves.
So how do we fix it? There have been lots of suggestions, from gathering the junk in magnetic nets to slowing satellites down with giant balloons, to simply burning them up. Some methods have already been tested – and failed.
Aerospace engineer Hugh Lewis from the University of Southampton is a leading researcher on space debris, and he will be explaining the problem and its potential solutions at New Scientist Live on 23 September. The security of many elements of our everyday lives, from GPS to the internet, depend on us dealing with the trash circling our planet – and soon.
New Scientist Live is our award-winning festival of ideas and discoveries at ExCeL London. The four-day event will feature more than 110 speakers giving thought-provoking talks on everything from the Large Hadron Collider to living on Mars.