Policy ForumSpace Science

Space Junk--Protecting Space for Future Generations

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Science  17 May 2002:
Vol. 296, Issue 5571, pp. 1241-1242
DOI: 10.1126/science.1069725

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Man-made space debris comes from launch and orbital operations and includes fragmentation debris from past explosions and collisions in orbit. Although 99% of the mass of debris in orbit is cataloged (objects >10 cm), smaller objects cannot be tracked and cataloged; those objects >1 cm, of which there are more than 100,000 in orbit, can cause catastrophic damage to satellites and spacecraft. Hypervelocity collisions in space threaten future space ventures and communication and navigation systems. In particular, the geostationary ring (for satellites orbiting in synchrony with Earth's rotation) is crowded with objects that will remain in orbit for hundreds or thousands of years. In this Policy Forum, Crowther discusses the sources of debris and short-term and longer term international cooperation among space-faring nations to mitigate space debris in near-Earth space for generations to come.