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Our Solar System is Littered, but Where Did all the Trash Come From?

On the surface of the Earth, we have junkyards and landfills to contain all of our unwanted garbage. However, due to space’s lack of surface area and containment ability, the tiniest bits of space debris are floating around. Of course, the planets aren’t going around having parties and littering their own home, so where is this trash coming from? To understand this, we first need to investigate what the debris is.

NASA, science, space, debris, space junk, orbital debris
Orbital debris surrounding the earth

The Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors track over 27,000 pieces of debris in our solar system. However, this number is an inaccurate report of the mass quantity of orbital debris. Orbital debris that is human-made can be categorized as any “object in orbit about the Earth that no longer serves a useful function.” This debris includes non-functional spacecrafts, fragmentation debris, mission-related debris, and abandoned vehicle launch stages. So, to answer the question: Where is this trash coming from? It’s coming from us.

1957’s Space Race Era exhausted resources and led various countries to expedite launches in order to gain an advantage over other countries. As a result of this competitive race, many launches and missions failed due to a lack of understanding of complicated equipment. Consequently, space became increasingly littered with debris, which can still affect equipment to this day. For example, a 1996 French satellite was impacted and damaged by debris from a French rocket that had combusted a decade earlier, and its pieces were still floating around in space.

nasa, science, space, debris, space junk, orbital debris
Punctured ISS Robot Arm

Orbital debris poses a threat to our satellites, space stations, rockets, and any other space equipment. Furthermore, if we do not reduce the amount of space debris, we would be at risk of surrendering our ability to explore space. This would impact our economy, national security, and our nation’s science and technology enterprises.

In acknowledging this information, here are various solutions scientists are implementing: Design-for-Demise, End-of-Life Services by Astro scale-demonstration, and the RemoveDEBRIS missions. These missions are designed to reduce the amount of space debris in an eco-friendly manner. For example, Design-for-Demise (D4D) is an initiative that constructs space hardware in a specific manner so that the hardware would dissolve into a small cloud of particles that isn’t harmful to anything. Next, the End-of-life Services utilize magnetic technology to successfully capture the space debris. Lastly, RemoveDEBRIS is another project aimed at performing “key active debris removal technology tests” in pursuit of discovering the best ways to clean up space.

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Citations - Articles

Published, Leonard David. “Space Junk Threat: Researchers Working to Reduce Impact of Falling Debris.”, 7 Sep. 2022, Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.

Thomas, Erin. “Breakdown: What Is Space Junk and Why Is It a Problem?” Https://, 8 Oct. 2021, Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.

The European Space Agency. “Design for Demise – a First Look.”, 24 Feb. 2016, is. Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.

Airbus. “RemoveDEBRIS.”, 2023, Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.

Aerospace. “A Brief History of Space Debris | the Aerospace Corporation.” Aerospace Corporation, 2 Nov. 2022, Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.

Garcia, Mark. “Space Debris and Human Spacecraft.” NASA, 26 May 2021, Accessed 22 Aug. 2023.

Citations - Images

Flickr. “300,000 Pieces of Space Junk,” Flickr, Accessed 23 Aug. 2023.NASA/Canadian Space Agency. “Images Show Damage to a Robotic Arm Located outside of the International Space System,” Space Junk Hit the International Space Station, Damaging a Robotic Arm, 21 June 2021,,y_0,h_619,w_1100,c_fill/h_720,w_1280/f_webp. Accessed 23 Aug. 2023.

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