The amount of space debris floating around Earth has touched the “tipping point,” as per a report released by the National Research Council, which will be putting into danger the safety of operational satellites and spacecraft from NASA and other space agencies.
The study has asked NASA to find methods for monitoring in a better manner as well as cleaning up the orbiting junk which could be ominous for active satellites and manned spacecraft.
“Computer models show the amount of orbital debris has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures, the research council said in a statement released as part of its report.
NASA has active and mature micrometeoroids and orbital debris (MMOD) programs to clean up space debris. However, shrinking budgets and the increased severity of the problem are hampering these efforts.
The problem has gotten so big that, over the years, technology changes and additions have been made to satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) to protect them from floating debris with which they could collide.
NASA will be in need of a new strategic plan in order to mitigate the risks imposed by spent rocket bodies, discarded satellites and thousands of other pieces of junk flying around the planet at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, the National Research Council has mentioned in the study.
In addition to more than 30 findings, the panel made two dozen recommendations for NASA to mitigate and improve the orbital debris environment, including collaborating with the State Department to develop the legal and regulatory framework for removing junk from space.
Active satellites are at risk of damage and as the amount of debris increases, there will be increases in the cost of operating. Manned spacecraft are also in danger. The international space station had a close call in late June, when an unidentified object came within 1,100 feet but caused no damage; astronauts were preemptively evacuated to the emergency spacecraft.
NASA estimates that Earth's orbital debris cloud contains more than 20,000 pieces as big as a softball and more than 500,000, bigger than a marble.
Those numbers are only going to keep growing, as humanity lofts more payloads and the pieces already up there collide with each other. In 2009, for example, a defunct Russian satellite and a U.S. Iridium communications satellite slammed into each other, adding at least another 2,000 pieces of space junk to the total.
NASA and other organizations try to keep track of all this stuff, but the problem is getting so bad that many experts are calling for active intervention.