Earlier in July, a suspicious object washed up on a remote beach in Western Australia. This chunk of golden metal was reported to be a piece of space debris that found its way back to Earth.
And it is not the only one. Today, as Visual Capitalist's Freny Fernandes details below, thousands of defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, metal shards from collisions, and other remnants of human space exploration are orbiting the Earth at breakneck speeds.
In this graphic, Preyash Shah uses tracking data from the Space-Track.org, maintained by the U.S. Space Force, to help visualize just how much debris is currently orbiting the Earth, while identifying the biggest contributors of this celestial clutter.
Note: Many spent rocket bodies are still actively tracked and controlled by their launch authorities, and the source tracks these separately. Space debris includes spent rocket bodies that are defunct and uncontrolled.
Ranked: Countries Responsible for the Most Space Debris
According to the data, there are roughly 14,000 small, medium, and large debris objects floating about in low Earth orbit as of May 2023. And this is not counting the millions of tiny debris fragments that are too small to be tracked.
Although space debris is a global problem, certain countries have played a larger role in contributing to the clutter. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Russia (formerly USSR) led the space race with the highest number of launched space objects. In the 1970s, they were joined by China, and objects from all three countries account for the vast majority of today’s space debris:
*China-Brazil space debris originates from various cooperational space programs over the years
The debris count of Russia—including former launches by the Soviet Union—currently stands at 4,521. But the U.S. and China are not far behind with more than 4,000 each. And though many of these are accumulated over time, thousands of debris are created in single catastrophic moments.
China’s anti-satellite test in 2007 destroyed its own weather satellite, creating 3,500 space debris pieces. Likewise, the 2009 collision between inactive Russian satellite Cosmos-2251 and operational U.S. communications satellite Iridium 33 created over 2,000 pieces of debris.
Moving at high speeds, even tiny fragments of debris can cause catastrophic collisions. And with companies like SpaceX launching expansive satellite networks, these numbers are bound to grow.
Clearer Skies on the Horizon?
Addressing the space debris issue requires a multi-faceted approach involving international cooperation, advanced technology, and responsible space practices.
Scientists and engineers are actively exploring methods to clean up debris, including concepts like space-based debris removal systems and novel deorbiting techniques.
Some space agencies like the European Space Agency are also making plans to ensure their space technology is designed with safe disposal plans to significantly reduce the accumulation of space junk.