Wreckage from a China-launched rocket plunged harmlessly into the Indian Ocean on Sunday after days of mystery about where it might land. Most of the 20-ton section of the rocket burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere, but some pieces rippled near the Maldives, according to China’s space agency. Prior to the crash, experts had warned that there was a small chance the debris could fall into a major city and cause severe damage.
While the incident attracted international attention because of the size of the rocket piece and confusion over its possible trajectory, space debris has become a commonplace concern for scientists as launches become more frequent and Earth’s outer atmosphere is increasingly crowded with satellites.
The risk of rocket parts falling into populated areas is increasing as more countries and private companies expand their space ambitions. The more pressing problem, most experts agree, is the danger that orbiting space debris poses to critical satellite infrastructure and space exploration missions.
About 6,000 satellites currently orbit the Earth, and more than half of them are now out of service. When they collide, they can shatter into thousands of pieces, which then hit other objects in orbit, potentially setting off a chain reaction that could destroy everything in their path and render entire areas of orbit unusable.
In addition to the larger objects, NASA estimates that there are at least 26,000 pieces of debris the size of a softball or larger that – because of their extraordinary speed – could destroy satellites or spacecraft. There are also millions of smaller pieces, some the size of a grain of sand, that could puncture a spacesuit.
Large as the space debris problem is today, it’s only going to get worse as companies like SpaceX pursue plans to put thousands of communications satellites into orbit in the coming years.
WHY THERE IS A DEBATE
World space experts widely agree that space debris is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Scientists have proposed a variety of solutions – some based on new technologies, others on policy changes – to address the problem.
There are a handful of companies working on systems that could theoretically collect existing space debris, push it back into the atmosphere to burn up, or push it deeper into space where it poses less of a threat. Other proposals include requiring that all new satellites be equipped with backup thrusters to push them out of orbit, better space debris tracking capabilities, and high-powered lasers that can alter the orbits of potentially hazardous objects.
However promising some of these concepts may be, many experts say space debris is more of a political problem than a technological one. They argue that space needs a robust set of international laws, similar to those that govern the oceans and skies, to ensure that countries and private companies act responsibly. Many believe that this effort must begin with major space powers such as the United States and China putting aside their competing ambitions and working together to create a sustainable long-term plan for human use of space.