There are thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth today, with some residing in Low-Earth Orbit and others following a Geostationary Orbit. One thing all these satellites have in common is that they sport a lifecycle, after which they become inactive hunks of metal in outer space and contribute to the growing space junk problem.
Scientists from space agencies all around the world, such as the European Space Agency, are working hard to develop novel ways of cleaning up unwanted space junk. Methods such as deorbiting at least 5 unused satellites each year and transitioning to reusable rockets as opposed to single-use rockets are definitely helping, but there’s a bigger problem at hand.
As space junk collides with other space junk or gets struck by natural objects like space rocks, the forces at work generate massive clouds of space debris, which can be detrimental to other satellites or even inhabitants of the International Space Station. Attempts to prevent space debris from forming are currently underway, such as by capturing high-risk satellites with nets and harpoons that can forcefully drag it back to Earth.
Space agencies are careful when they deorbit satellites, as they don’t want the objects to fall on occupied parts of land where they can become hazards to the general public. In most cases, they’ll attempt to deorbit satellites over the ocean, or at least maximize the drag of the fall through the Earth’s atmosphere to cause as much of the space junk to burn up as possible.
Ideas for cleaning up space junk are evolving every day, and it will indeed be interesting to see which ones stand the test of time as we work to clean up the space surrounding the Earth.