Trouble in orbit: the growing problem of space junk
Sadly, the space environment has borne the brunt of our increasing reliance on satellites and our long-lived belief that "space is big". More than 5,000 launches since the start of the space age, with rockets each carrying satellites, have resulted in orbital space becoming increasingly congested and contested.
More junk could be created by collisions than is removed through the natural decay caused by atmospheric drag. Indeed, we already have some experience of this: in February 2009 two relatively small satellites collided over Siberia creating about 2,000 new fragments that could be tracked, with many still orbiting today and regularly passing close to other satellites.
Several companies, including Planet Labs and OneWeb have affirmed their commitment to tackle the space junk problem in the public domain. However, much work is still needed to fully understand the problem, develop technologies (such as e.Deorbit), remove legal and political barriers, and to increase awareness.
The space age has enabled global solutions to some of society's biggest challenges. It has also held out a mirror and shown us that a continuing disregard for the space environment will surely affect our ability to deliver these solutions, with potential consequences for millions of people.