FRANKFURT – The General Director of the European Space Agency warned on Tuesday of the existence of at least 750,000 space junk particles orbiting Earth.
Jan Wörner spoke during the 7th European Conference on Space Debris at the ESA’s Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, where he warned of hundreds of thousands of objects sized between 1 and 10 cm (0.4-4 inches) currently orbiting Earth in both Low Earth Orbit and in higher geostationary parking slots.
In addition to these objects, the ESA has calculated that there are an additional 166 million objects ranging from 1 millimeter (0.04 in) to 1 cm floating in orbit.
Since 1957, the official dawn of the Space Age, some 5,250 rocket launches, among other missions, have lifted a total of 7,500 satellites of which 1,200 remain operational.
With an estimated 290 collisions resulting in fragmentation and debris, one gets a glimpse of the problem looming above our heads.
These resulting particles range from specks of paint to hundreds of empty rocket booster stages or decommissioned satellites traveling at an average speed of 40,000 km/h (25,000 mph).
Any impact on a functioning spacecraft would roughly deliver the energy equivalent of a hand grenade explosion with severe consequences for the craft’s survivability.
Wörner recalled that the Sentinel 1A global monitoring satellite, launched in 2014, began showing electrical supply problems in 2016.
When they checked its solar panels they noted one panel had suffered substantial damage after hitting a minute space debris particle.
In 2009 the American communications satellite Iridium 33, launched in September 1997, collided in orbit with the Russian Kosmos 2251 satellite, creating a substantial amount of space debris, he added.
In his opinion, in order to combat space debris, it was necessary to monitor the debris, avoid collisions and de-orbit defunct satellites and rocket stages.
The ESA’s general director concluded that the issue is “a global challenge requiring a global response with joint initiatives worldwide” in order to mitigate the risks faced in orbit.
Wörner stressed that the ESA remains interested in contributing to the global discussion concerning space debris, meteorological forecasting and near-Earth objects.
ESA’s Space Debris Conference opened Tuesday and is scheduled to run until April 21.