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Space junk: Even small fragments have the potential to cause significant damage

DW, 21 Apr 2021
Earth is slowly being wrapped in a cloud of debris. Experts estimate that nearly 130 million pieces of scrap metal are currently orbiting our planet. Most are only a few millimeters in size, but there are also tanks, rocket stages and old satellites. Because of their high speed, even small fragments have the potential to cause significant damage.

As a result, space junk is now being monitored. Radar and laser systems can see objects between five and ten centimeters large. They can also show where the debris is located. If a collision is imminent, satellites and even the space station can be programmed to change course to avoid the debris.

But dramatic collisions have already occurred more than once. Like in 2009, when a discarded satellite crashed into a telecommunications satellite that was still in use. This created a cloud of thousands of pieces of debris. Today, this junk still circles the earth.

Space debris like this could cause further collisions leading to an uncontrollable chain reaction. That's why researchers and engineers have decided to clean up the trash in the Earth's orbit.

They want to catch tumbling satellites with huge nets from a safe distance, like catching fish in the ocean. Their goal is to pull the space junk out of the danger zone. Researchers have already conducted initial tests.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is working on robotic systems that can grab satellites. They will push them towards Earth until they burn up in the atmosphere.

In 2025, scientists will launch ClearSpace-1: a demonstration satellite. It will capture a drifting, 100-kilo rocket stage, bring it out of orbit, and burn up with it as they descend to earth.

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