In the past 60 years, outer space has gone from a virtually debris-free environment to a zone cluttered with man-made pollution. Much of this space debris is made up of defunct satellites and spent rocket stages as well as fragments from their break-ups and collisions. As of January 2019, the European Space Agency—which defines space debris as ‘all artificial objects including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering the atmosphere, that are non-functional—estimates that there are more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1cm, about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm, and around 34,000 of pieces larger than 10 cm in orbit around earth. These numbers continue to grow as fragments collide and break into multiple pieces. Humans are only just coming to understand the devastating consequences of our pollution on earth. It seems likely that similar, unpredictable consequences in space will become apparent in our future. At present, space debris poses a serious hazard to spacecrafts due to the risk of collision. This can cause billions of dollars worth of damage as well as endangering the lives of astronauts.

In addition to this orbiting debris, other kinds of outer-space pollution exist. Pieces of trash remain on the moon that range from leftover rocket parts to everyday objects—including a plastic bag. Some objects also return to earth from space only to become waste. And finally, there is the waste on earth that accumulates as byproducts of the space industry.

In SPACE JUNK we delve into the various types of space waste and explore design solutions that seek to reduce and create awareness around the issue of space junk.

European Space Agency (2018) ESA’s Annual Space Environment Report