Humans have been putting objects like spaceships and satellites into space since 1957. Each time an object is put into space, small pieces fall off. Sometimes these pieces are released into space on purpose. Other times, little pieces of spacecrafts fall off by accident. These pieces are usually small things like tiny flaps of metal or flecks of paint. Any piece that falls off a space object will get stuck in Earth’s orbit and continue circling Earth. These little pieces of old, unused machines are called space junk.
There are millions of pieces of space junk currently circling Earth! Most of that debris is tiny, but about 500,000 pieces are the size of a marble or larger. These pieces of space junk can travel up to 17,500 mph. That’s 30 times faster than an airplane! Space junk can travel so fast that even a tiny paint fleck could cause serious damage if it crashed into another object.
The United States government works with scientists at NASA to track space junk that is the size of a softball or larger. They create computer models to see where a piece of space junk will be at a certain time. This way, they can plan routes for spaceships that will avoid crashes with other objects in space.
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Photo Credit: JSC/NASA