How much junk is in space?

September 3, 2009 4:44:32 PM PDT
Two astronauts from the space shuttle Discovery are just about two hours into the mission's second spacewalk. They're installing a new ammonia tank outside the International Space Station. On Thursday, there was concern a piece of space junk would come too close to the shuttle.[FULL COVERAGE: NASA and space shuttle coverage]
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However, NASA says it will pass within two miles, not close enough to move Discovery or the space station. We may not hear about the possibility of collisions that often, but there are millions of pieces of debris floating around in space.

The idea of NASA coping with space debris is nothing new. Of the 8,000 large artificial objects orbiting the earth, NASA says 5,500 of them are junk. A graphic from the space agency's website shows just how much there is.

In this case, the debris is part of a European Arienne 5 rocket launched in 2006 from the Kourou space port in South America. Eyewitness News was there in 2006 for a launch of the Arienne 5. It's what is called a heavy lift vehicle in that it can handle a lot of weight, usually sending two satellites into orbit at once. The Europeans launch roughly seven a year from just north of the equator.

"It's the essential European asset that we have here, with Europe's spaceport as we call it. The launcher is preassembled in Europe. It has to be finally assembled here in French Guiana. We have the solid propellant boosters, which are already partially produced in French Guiana. All that has to be reassembled here," said Bjorn Tjaden, Director of the Kourou space port in 2006.

Half of all of the world's working satellites were launched from here, and it's one of only three places in the world that sends private payloads into orbit. That means it also accounts for a lot of junk.

"What we have here is a very high-tech, sophisticated launch base with a good team of people. The location obviously is good because you're close to the equator and that helps with the performance of the launch vehicle. And the better performance you get with the launch vehicle, the more lifetime your satellite will have, so that's and advantage as well," said Jim Elliott of Wildblue Communications.

NASA says there are 19,000 objects bigger than the size of a pack of cigarettes floating in space. There are 500,000 between the size of a dime and a deck of cards. Smaller than that? There are tens of millions in orbit, the main source of which are collisions and explosions of satellites launched in rockets just like the Arienne 5.

In July, space shuttle Endeavour and the space station moved to a higher orbit to avoid space junk. NASA says the shuttle has to steer away from debris once every year or two.

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