Feb 2, 2021 - Science

NASA's space junk problem

A sunrise seen from orbit

Sunrise seen from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

NASA needs to do more to understand the risks posed to spacecraft by space junk and find new ways to mitigate the threat, according to a report last week from the Office of Inspector General.

Why it matters: Some see space junk as an environmental crisis in orbit. Millions of pieces of space debris speed around Earth at more than 17,000 mph, putting spacecraft and sometimes people in harm’s way.

Driving the news: The new OIG report suggests that while NASA has done a good job of deorbiting its own spacecraft and rocket bodies, many other nations haven't been as proactive, launching spacecraft and rockets that stay in orbit longer than the 25 years recommended.

  • Now experts warn the space agency will need to both mitigate the junk already in space and prevent future junk from being created to keep spacecraft safe in the future.
  • "Despite presidential and congressional directives to NASA over the past decade to develop active debris removal technologies, the Agency has made little to no progress on such efforts," the OIG wrote.
  • The OIG also recommended NASA should develop a better means of tracking and understanding the nature of space junk in orbit to more effectively protect its spacecraft.

The catch: Nations and private companies are working to find ways to effectively clean up space, but those technologies are still early in development.

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