New evidence has revealed just how much space debris was created by Russia’s recent anti-satellite test, and the early results don’t look good. When we talk about debris and pollution, the conversation usually revolves around those things on Earth. Humans tend to be a pretty reckless species — as evident by the endless amounts of trash, ocean pollution, and other garbage we’ve added to the planet.
While it’s not talked about as often, the same is true of outer space. In May 2021, NASA confirmed that the U.S. Department of Defense was tracking over 27,000 pieces of orbital debris/space junk in the “near-Earth space environment.” This includes the likes of out-of-commission spacecraft, launch vehicle components, old satellites, etc. NASA estimates that around 23,000 orbital debris are larger than a softball, along with another 500,000 pieces about the size of a marble. Those sizes don’t sound very concerning on paper, but when these things orbit the Earth at speeds up to 17,500 mph, they can be extremely dangerous to ongoing and future missions.
Related: NASA Says It’ll Be ‘Several Weeks’ Before It Fixes Hubble’s Strange Anomaly
Unfortunately, the space debris situation isn’t getting any better. Instead, it’s only getting worse. On November 15, Russia conducted an anti-satellite test by exploding one of its own satellites. The country has stood by the test and claims it posed no threat to ‘space activities,’ but new evidence suggests otherwise. Two new visualizations of the resulting debris from the explosion were shared on November 18 — one from the European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking network, and another from University of Southampton professor Hugh Lewis. Taking a look at both of them, the newly created debris looks really bad.
Update: this video represents a simulation of the initial dispersion of the fragments resulting from the reported #ASAT test. The event has increased the collision risk of spacecraft in the LEO regime registered to #EUSST, hence impacting the safety of EU #space infrastructure. pic.twitter.com/iA3zRKNqr1
— EUSST (@EU_SST) November 18, 2021
What These New Visuals Reveal About The Satellite Debris
Looking first at the EUSST’s visual, it shows the debris initially starting out as a tightly-packed bundle. As it travels around the Earth, however, it quickly expands until it’s formed a massive arc around the planet. The EUSST says it still has much more research to conduct to fully understand the severity of the explosion, but early findings certainly don’t look good.
Lewis’s visual offers a similar view of the debris orbiting the Earth, though his focuses on what the debris looks like as it passes over the Atlantic Ocean. Lewis further explained his visual to The Verge, explaining that each piece of debris is orbiting Earth at different speeds based on their height above the planet. The height of the debris will also impact how quickly they get sucked into Earth’s atmosphere and eventually leave orbit.
Debris closer to Earth will likely burn up over the next five years, while pieces further away could linger in space for decades. With the U.S. State Department estimating there are at least 1,500 pieces of debris because of the explosion, it’s a bleak situation no matter how you slice it.