In Depth

How space junk could lead to war

Russian scientists warn growing level of debris in orbit around Earth may trigger conflict

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Scientists have warned that the growing quantity of debris in space could trigger armed conflict if it were to collide with military satellites.

How did we get to this point?

As the number of space missions increases, so does the rubbish they leave behind. There are thought to be more than half a million pieces of debris larger than a marble cluttering up Earth's orbit. Travelling at speeds of 17,000mph, these pieces of broken-up rockets and out-of-commission satellites pose a huge risk to spacecraft. Even tiny flecks of paint can be dangerous at this velocity, says Nasa.  

The International Space Station has had a number of close calls, with astronauts frequently having to perform manoeuvres to avoid collisions. The Russian spacecraft Blits was disabled when it was apparently struck by Chinese space junk in 2013, says The Guardian.

What are the likely consequences?

The loss of military satellites to space debris could "provoke political or even armed conflict between space-faring nations", says Vitaly Adushkin, from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Writing in an article for the journal Acta Astronautica, he says there are only two possibilities when a defence satellite suddenly fails: an unregistered collision with space debris or an aggressive action by an adversary.  "This is a politically dangerous dilemma," he says.

What's being done to clean up space?

From lasers to robotic arms, a number of bold suggestions have been made. The European Space Agency is currently leading the way with a project called e.Deorbit, which involves capturing rubbish and burning it up through a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere. Member countries will vote on whether to approve the €150m (£114m) mission in December. Project manager Robin Biesbroek has underscored the importance of finding a solution – and fast. "We are getting collision warnings almost every week for some of our satellites," he has said. "We really need to do something."

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