Today more than half a million pieces of man-made space junk orbit Earth, and this is rather remarkable considering that we only started sending satellites into orbit in 1957.
“The only way to [solve this problem] is to bring back the larger objects,” NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who has led NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office for nearly 20 years, said in 2013.
And we may need to do this very fast, Kessler said earlier this year. “We’re at what we call a ‘critical density’ — where there are enough large objects in space that they will collide with one another and create small debris faster than it can be removed,” Kessler said in September.
Just this month on December 22nd, Southern Californians witnessed a bright fireball streaking across the evening sky. It turned out to be a piece of Russian space junk that had fallen from orbit.
Some 109 bits of known space debris have fallen from orbit this year, Capt. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesman for the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, which runs the Joint Space Operations Center. said. But those who track space junk can’t say for certain how all of these objects met their fate.
“There’s really no way for us to track it once it enters the atmosphere,” Mercurio said.