Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

How Much 'Space Junk' Is out There?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

How Much 'Space Junk' Is out There?

Article excerpt

BERLIN - This time it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean - but what about next time?

The European Space Agency says one of its research satellites re- entered the Earth's atmosphere early this morning on an orbit that passed over Siberia, the western Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean and Antarctica.

The 2,425-pound satellite disintegrated in the atmosphere but about 25 percent of it - about 600 pounds of "space junk" - slammed into the Atlantic between Antarctica and South America, a few hundred miles from the Falkland Islands, ESA said. It caused no known damage.

The satellite - called the GOCE, for Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer - was launched in 2009 to map the Earth's gravitational field. The information is being used to understand ocean circulation, sea levels, ice dynamics and the Earth's interior. The satellite had been gradually descending in orbit over the last three weeks after running out of fuel Oct. 21.

But how much space junk is out there? Here's a look:

SPACE JUNK FLYING AROUND THE COSMOS

Some 6,600 satellites have been launched. Some 3,600 remain in space but only about 1,000 are still operational, according to ESA. Not all are still intact, and the U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks some 23,000 space objects, ESA said. A lot of junk comes down unnoticed, said ESA Space Debris Office deputy head Holger Krag. Statistically, he said, "roughly every week you have a re- entry like GOCE."

AND WHEN IT STARTS TO FALL

About 110 to 165 tons of space junk re-enters Earth's atmosphere each year, according to Heiner Klinkrad, the head of ESA's Space Debris Office. In 56 years of spaceflight, a total of 16,500 tons of human-made space objects have re-entered the atmosphere.

HOW FAST ARE WE TALKING?

Space junk - mostly satellites and rocket stages or fragments - typically travels at about 17,400 mph shortly before re-entry at about 75 miles above the earth, according to ESA. …

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