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Space Debris is also known as Space Junk. Space Debris consists of millions of pieces of man-made material orbiting the Earth.

Where did all Space Debris come from?

Space debris consists of natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. Meteoroids are in orbit about the sun, while most artificial debris is in orbit about the Earth.

Orbital Debris

Orbital debris is any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function. Such debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.

There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. 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. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they canít be tracked.

Monitoring Junk

Today, telescopes and radar are monitoring more than 12,000 pieces of junk down to 10 cm in size. Many millions of pieces are too small to be recorded, such as flecks of paint and dust.

Space Shuttle

Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities. In fact a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks.


In 1958 the United States launched Vanguard I. It became one of the longest surviving pieces of space junk. As of January 2012 remains the oldest piece of junk still in orbit.

In 1996, a French satellite was hit and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had exploded a decade earlier.

On 10 February, 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed a functioning U.S. Iridium commercial satellite. The collision added more than 2,000 pieces of trackable debris to the inventory of space junk.

China's 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,000 pieces to the debris problem.

ISS adjusts orbit to avoid Space Debris

The International Space Station moved into a slightly higher orbit on Friday 13, January, 2012 to avoid a close call with debris from a 2009 satellite collision. Thusters on the ISS's Zvezda module fired for nearly a minute at 11:10 am EST (1610 GMT) Friday, raising the station's orbit by 305 meters. The maneuver was approved after the US Strategic Command detected a piece of debris about 10 centimeters in diameter projected to come as close as one kilometer to the station. The debris was a fragment of the Iridium 33 satellite, which collided with a defunct Russian satellite in 2009. The maneuver was the 13th debris avoidance maneuver in the station's history.

Did you know?

* Space Junk threatens future space travel.

 * When the Hubble Space Telescopeís solar panels were brought back to Earth in 2002, they were peppered with impact craters up to 8 mm across.


Space Debris: Models and Risk Analysis (Springer Praxis Books / Astronautical Engineering) [Hardcover]
Heiner Klinkrad (Author)

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Copyright © 2000-2014 Vic Stathopoulos. All rights reserved.

Updated: Tuesday 1st, April, 2014

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