Washington, D.C. – Don’t say you are surprised. A 5-inch piece of an old rocket engine recently came within striking distance of the International Space Station (ISS). The crew had prepared for impact and we wonder when one of the tens of thousands of garbage pieces will hit the defenseless station.
You knew it was a matter of time. Given the number of uncontrollable pieces of junk floating in orbit, it may even be a surprise that nothing more serious than one satellite collision has happened so far. The ISS crew was warned that the 5-inch piece could be on a collision course, as NASA is able to track pieces down to a size of about two inches.
While the astronauts were able to take refuge in the Russian Soyuz lifeboat in the event they had to abandon the station and return to Earth, but the old rocket engine eventually missed. It was unclear by how much and NASA said it may have been a few hundred feet or a few miles. The astronauts themselves said they did not see anything passing the ISS.
Last month, a collision of a commercial Iridium satellite with an inactive Russian Cosmos 2251 prompted calls for a space control system to avoid future collisions.
We typically assume that space is a whole lot of “nothing”, but a closer look at satellite tracking data provided by the UCS Satellite Database reveals that hundreds of operational satellites and tens of thousands of “junk” is orbiting Earth. There are currently 905 operational satellites in orbit, 443 of which belong to the U.S. government or companies. There are almost 6000 non-operational satellites plus another 10,000 to 11,000 pieces of debris that can be tracked. It is estimated there are another 15,000 to 20,000 pieces of junk that is smaller to be able to be tracked in orbit at this time.