Space debris – a historical problem

Sputnik-1 – Copyright: NASA/A. Siddiqi

In 1957 the first artificial satellite Sputnik-1 was launched, setting humankind on a course that would lead to a deep reliance on satellite data and technology. Now, 60 years on and over 8,000 satellite launches later, satellites are part of our critical international infrastructure and are intrinsic to our daily lives​

Each day billions of people around the world rely on data from satellites to go about their lives. We exchange messages, talk to family and friends, check the weather, manage finances and undertake numerous other tasks. In addition, satellites are used to manage and mitigate natural disasters, monitor the Earth’s climate and well-being and provide information for national security. In short, without satellite data, the lives of people around the world would be dramatically different.

Unfortunately, just as humans have polluted the oceans, air and land, we have left a tangible and potentially dangerous mark in Earth’s orbit – leaving defunct satellites and spent rockets in space that increase the threat for current and future missions.

Over the past few years, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM) have become important topics of discussion around the world as government and industry begin to recognize and address this escalating problem.​

The statistics

According to figures released in January 2019 by the European Space Agency (ESA) Space Debris office, the data is as follows (all numbers are approximate):​

8,950 satellites launched into space
5,000 satellites still orbiting the Earth
1,950 operational satellites (meaning around 61% of satellites in orbit are non-functional debris)
500 collisions, break-ups and explosions (creating further fragmentation and debris)

The number of debris objects estimated to be in orbit is:

34,000 objects >10cm
900,000 objects from 1cm to 10cm
130 million objects <1cm

We don’t see these satellites or the millions of pieces of debris in orbit, but they are there, presenting a growing hazardous environment for existing and future space missions.​