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What is space debris and why is it a problem? California sky's strange light being investigated

What is space debris and why is it a problem? California sky's strange light being investigated

Mysterious streaks in the sky have baffled Californians, who have speculated whether they were caused by meteors or space debris.

The light rays were seen across the skies in the early hours of April 2. Rumours on the internet suggested they could have been debris from a SpaceX launch.

Some suggested the rays could have been matter transmitted from the Chinese Shenzhou-15 spacecraft, which was set to launch around the same time.

While investigations are underway to find their source, space debris has become a growing problem.

The Space X Falcon was launched on April 2 (Getty Images)
The Space X Falcon was launched on April 2 (Getty Images)

What is space debris?

Space debris, also known as space junk, is any piece of machinery or debris left by humans in space — according to the Natural History Museum’s definition.

It can refer to the problem of old satellites at one end of the spectrum, or flecks of paint that have fallen from spacecraft.

Experts say 2,000 active satellites and about 3,000 dead ones are orbiting Earth. There are also an estimated 34,000 objects of 10 centimetres or larger.

Such debris has been caused by humans sending objects into space.

Space debris can be a problem when satellites crash into each other (PA Media)
Space debris can be a problem when satellites crash into each other (PA Media)

Why is space debris a problem?

Space debris could prove dangerous and deadly if it comes into contact with a spacecraft. Some higher-orbiting junk can remain in space for thousands of years.

It poses a greater risk to satellites that must perform thousands of manoeuvres annually to avoid a collision. In 2009, a US satellite was destroyed after colliding with space debris.

Satellites can occasionally crash into each other. To lower the chance of this happening, some countries have launched missiles to blow up their satellites — but this impact can jettison thousands more pieces of debris into the sky.

What’s the solution to space debris?

The United Nations says all satellites must be removed from the sky in the 25 years after they have completed their missions.

This can be hard to do, however, with satellites often broken or not working. This leads to innovative solutions being sought, such as dragging them back into the atmosphere to burn up.

In March, scientists called for a legally binding treaty to protect the Earth’s orbit from the dangers posed by space debris.

An international team of experts said there were around 100 trillion pieces of old satellites circling the planet that were not being tracked, They highlighted the problems these could cause.

The Space Safety Coalition has called for a “highway code” to tackle space junk. It says a rules-of-the-road-style guidebook is needed for manoeuvring spacecraft.