Space junk is on the rise, and no one is in charge of cleaning it up | Space


Enlarge / An artist’s conception of space junk orbiting Earth.

There’s a lot of trash on the Moon right now—including nearly 100 bags of human waste—and with countries around the globe traveling to the Moon, there’s going to be a lot more, both on the lunar surface and in Earth’s orbit.

In August 2023, Russia’s Luna-25 probe crashed into the Moon’s surface, while India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission successfully landed in the southern polar region, making India the fourth country to land on the Moon.

Enlarge / Students celebrating and dancing after the Chandrayaan3 Vikram Lander successfully landed on the Moon at Kartvayapath on August 23, 2023, in New Delhi, India.

With more countries landing on the Moon, people back on Earth will have to think about what happens to all the landers, waste, and miscellaneous debris left on the lunar surface and in orbit.

I’m a professor of astronomy who has written a book about the future of space travel, articles about our future off-Earth, conflict in space, space congestion, and the ethics of space exploration. Like many other space experts, I’m concerned about the lack of governance around space debris.

Space is getting crowded

People think of space as vast and empty, but the near-Earth environment is starting to get crowded. As many as 100 lunar missions are planned over the next decade by governments and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Near-Earth orbit is even more congested than the space between Earth and the Moon. It’s from 100 to 500 miles straight up, compared with 240,000 miles to the Moon. Currently there are nearly 7,700 satellites within a few hundred miles of the Earth. That number could grow to several hundred thousand by 2027. Many of these satellites will be used to deliver Internet to developing countries or to monitor agriculture and climate on Earth. Companies like SpaceX have dramatically lowered…

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