6 Nov

Map of the Week: Stuff in Space

By Juli Miller

The night sky we all know is dark. It may hold a moon, a splattering of stars, an intangible mystery just beyond the capability of our mortal understanding… and a lot of space junk. Asteroids, space dust, satellites old and new, space mission leftovers, the international space station itself , and a whole galaxy of celestial matter are all pulled along by our planet’s gravitational pull. In fact, everything we have ever sent into orbit (since the launch of Sputnik in 1957) is still in orbit even after it stops working. And all of that equipment and machinery eventually breaks down, colliding into each other, passing asteroids and, more dangerously, into active satellites and space shuttles. And its reaching a critical point.

This space junk is precisely that: junk. Litter that has been forgotten in the last frontier. These pieces become particularly worrisome when you factor in the speeds they can travel at. Business Insider described a fragment about an inch in length zooming around the Earth at about 17,000 miles per hour. In comparison, the bullet of an automatic gun travels at about 1,600 miles per hour. With some of these celestial bits traveling over ten times as fast as one of the fastest physical objects the average person can comprehend; this makes this kind of litter particularly dangerous, as something even the size of a pencil eraser could breach even the best engineered spacecraft or shatter a satellite’s solar panels with ease. Furthermore, it is estimated that there are currently around 200,000 bits of debris between 1 and 10 centimeters in size, and nearly 130 million bits smaller than a centimeter, all encircling our earth from beyond and growing with every collision.

This is where Stuff in Space comes in to help. Its an interactive map that serves to visualize the database of recorded and tracked objects in Earth’s gravitational pull. You can navigate around the planet, adjusting your distance from the surface to view a greater range of objects. They are all depicted in real time, making their journey around the planet in a beautiful show of colored polka dots. When you hover over a point, its orbital path lights up in blue, highlighting its trajectory around the Earth. Every dot is color coded, marking satellites, rocket bodies, debris, and various “objects”. By clicking on a point, a legend appears that tells you the name of the object alongside a list of space jargon that includes the object’s position and speed relative to the Earth. Furthermore, you can select an option that displays “all objects from this launch” on the map.

Search any of the given satellite names on the internet, and you will immediately be told where, when, and by whom this object was launched. For example, In-the-Sky.org reported that “TITAN 4B R/B, launched from Air Force Western Test Range, California, USA in 2000.” From here, your journey into the neatly cataloged realm of space junk begins. You can easily waste an hour or two mindlessly clicking around the 3 dimensional map. Every point is an unimaginably distant, yet so close as it is something that has passed through human hands not long ago.

However, the deviousness in these objects is not so inviting. As their numbers grow, this space debris may make space exploration impossible. It would be like sending a chicken to cross a formula one speed way, except with 200,000 plus cars and the other side miles away. The chances of being hit could become too great, effectively trapping the human hand on this planet.

If you have mounting anxieties with this information, take solace in knowing that people are on it! One debris removal startup called Astroscale is researching how to remove decommissioned satellites from orbit, bringing attention to this issue. Furthermore, new government legislation has ruled that all new satellite technology must detail how they will deorbit at the end of their life cycle. The problem persists, however, great minds are working to fix it.

In the meantime, have fun exploring Stuff in Space!

Sources: Business Insider, National Geographic, Space News, Federal Register 

Map: Stuff in Space

Additional Reading: Who Owns All The Space Junk?