One of the problems we face in outer space is total garbage, and we’re going to have to use junk science to fix it.

There are thousands of pieces of debris, large and small, rocketing in orbit around Earth, posing dangers to the International Space Station, satellites and future space explorers. These remnants of old satellites, launchers and other equipment are called space junk or space debris, and they have been accumulating since the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space into 1957.

NASA estimates more than 20,000 pieces going around the Earth are bigger than a softball and 500,000 are bigger than a marble. That doesn’t sound very large, especially in the shadow of a behemoth like the ISS, which is as wide as a football field is long. But they are moving as quickly as 17,500 miles per hour, “fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft,” NASA says. And damage them it has.

For comparison, bullets travel on average about 1,700 miles per hour, more than 10 times slower.

To complicate matters further, “there are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked,” according to NASA. But just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Read: NASA Makes Little Robot Friend For Mars Rover

Space agencies have had their sights set on the trash problem for years, but our planet is becoming more and more cluttered as time goes on. That’s in part because we add more to the mess and because of collisions. The European Space Agency explains (video below) that when bits of space junk collide with one another, the impact creates even more debris. There is currently a collision only every few years, the ESA says, but as debris accumulates they will become far more frequent and may even make it almost impossible to travel in low Earth orbit, between 100 and 200 miles above the planet.

Stuff in Space — a hobby project by programmer and engineering student James Yoder — gives a good look at the space debris in action. At the time of this writing in New York, several smaller pieces of junk were flying overhead.

There is some hope: This year will see experts testing different ways to take out the trash, CNN reports, “including a net, a harpoon and a sail. … Once captured, debris be dragged back into the atmosphere where it would burn up.”

It’s not clear whether the ideas will work, but hopefully scientists will find a way to give Earth some space.


See also:

The Signs of Life on Other Planets

This Nearby Planet is Erupting a Bunch of Salty Stuff