If you somehow had a way to rocket into space prior to October 4, 1957, and look back on the Earth, you would have seen that it was a planet with nothing but the vastness of space surrounding it (well, and whatever magic capsule you were in). Fast forward to today, and that look back at our planet is very different. Since the Russian satellite Sputnik launched on that October day 58 years ago, we've sent thousands of other objects into orbit around our planet, resulting in an ever-growing storm of space junk surrounding Earth.
A recent YouTube video from Stuart Grey, a lecturer at University College London, shows, in one striking minute, just how dramatically we've littered the space around Earth over the last six decades. Grey used data from Space-Track.org, a group that monitors space debris, to build his model.
According to NASA's Orbital Debris Program, there are currently over 21,000 pieces of space junk that are larger than 10 cm (about 3.9 inches) circling our planet. In the 1-10 cm (about .4-4 inches) in diameter range, there are about 500,000 pieces, while debris measuring less than 1 cm exceeds 100 million. And if you think those tiny particles are nothing to worry about, think again. The particles can travel at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour (about 28,163 kilometers per hour), making them quite hazardous.
"Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities," says NASA. "In fact a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced because of damage caused by material that was analyzed and shown to be paint flecks."
Space junk is getting to be so prevalent that crew members aboard the International Space Station had to seek emergency shelter in the space outpost's Soyuz capsule in July as a chunk of space debris thought to be the remains of an old Russian satellite came speeding at them at about 35,000 miles per hour (about 56,327 kilometers per hour).
Several means of cleaning up space debris have been suggested -- including a Pac-Man-like satellite, nets and lasers -- although none have been put into place as of yet.