(NEXSTAR) — Have you ever been gazing at the night sky and caught a glimpse of something that must surely be a star or space anomaly, only to find out it’s a satellite?
You certainly aren’t alone. There are thousands of satellites and other instruments orbiting Earth. While many go unnoticed (unless you do spot one while stargazing), satellites — and space debris orbiting with them — can pose a serious threat.
So serious, in fact, that one company was recently fined for their own space debris. In early October, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) settled an investigation into DISH after the company reportedly failed to properly deorbit a satellite. It was a first for the FCC, which says it “has stepped up its satellite policy efforts.”
DISH ultimately had to admit liability, agree to a compliance plan, and pay a $150,000 fine. The FCC determined DISH relocated the satellite to a disposal orbit “well below the elevation required by the terms of its license,” posing “orbital debris concerns.”
Space debris is basically anything in space that isn’t an active satellite, Dr. Hanspeter Schaub, a professor with the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, explains to Nexstar.
That could include satellites, like the one DISH was fined for, or parts of satellites that may come off after being struck by something. That something may include other space debris, like a wrench lost by an astronaut working on the International Space Station or pieces of rockets left behind.
As you can imagine, it can be hard to tell just how much space debris is out there. Schaub describes it like dropping a plate in your kitchen. If it breaks, you can easily find the big pieces, but the smaller pieces will be harder to find. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to track it all though.
“In low Earth orbits, we can track readily from the ground things that are about 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) or bigger,” Schaub explains. “And for those size objects, we’re looking at 40 to 50,000 objects in the near-Earth environment.”
In the geosynchronous ring, where weather and TV satellites orbit, it’s harder to track those smaller objects. However, a recent report from the European Space Agency says the total number of objects orbiting our planet that are larger than 1 centimeter “is likely over one million.”
And with more and more satellites being launched into space — a record 2,409 new payloads (mostly satellites) entered orbit last year, according to the ESA — even the smallest wrench floating around can cause concern.
NASA has identified the big bits of debris in the upper orbit (where satellites are) as a concern already, Schaub says. Those bits — about the size of a school bus — are traveling rapidly. If they collide with one another, they can create shrapnel that’s harder to track.
That harder-to-track shrapnel may knock out cells on a solar panel or cut a wire, but the larger bits of shrapnel “could readily kill” a satellite completely, Schaub explains.
A collision between two intact satellites in 2009 sparked real concerns about space debris. As NASA explains, the U.S. communications satellite Iridium 33 collided with a non-functioning Russian communications satellite, Cosmos 2251, on February 10, 2009. The Iridium satellite stopped functioning, and NASA tracked more than 1,800 pieces of debris 10 centimeters or larger in orbit as a result of the collision.
Since then, there have been multiple theories on how to recollect the space debris orbiting our planet. That includes a “big sticky ball,” which would orbit Earth and absorb debris, Schaub says. But, it’d have to be very large, and may not be able to tell the difference between debris and a functioning satellite.
In reality, some satellites that are no longer in use are sent to an area in low-Earth orbit where they can burn up. Others use an electric dynamic tether, which is like “big metal strings” that generate a current and bring down the satellite, according to Schaub. The most popular method, he notes, is robotic, which requires the robot to meet up with the satellite and slowly bring it down toward Earth. It’ll burn up as it moves through the atmosphere, but the robot must be able to avoid destroying itself.
It’s not as easy as it may seem. There are also legal challenges. Schaub says you may be accused of stealing if you move a satellite that isn’t yours or face consequences if you disturb other instruments in orbit. And while we might want to clean up some of the debris, there has to be funding.
“Nobody wants to pay to put trash out, right? People want to fly to land robots on Mars. That’s the sexy fun project. Moving trash is not sexy,” he adds.
So do you need to worry about a runaway satellite or a loose wrench crashing into your backyard?
“Is there a chance? Is it a nonzero chance? Yes,” Schaub tells Nexstar. But, so far, there haven’t been any notable reports of space debris plummeting to Earth.
“I think of all the things to worry about on the Earth, it’s nonzero, but it’s a small risk at the current stage,” Schaub continues. “You’re far more likely to be hit by lightning or to fall down the stairs.”