Last week, the world was transfixed by the story of a gecko sex satellite that Russia lost contact with after it was knocked by some space debris. Apparently, it was the wake up call we needed as a species: Japan has announced the creation of a program aimed at monitoring space debris, a military-based project that will fight on the “fourth battlefield.” Space junk is a way bigger problem that you might realize. There are as many as 3,000 individual pieces of trash orbiting Earth right now, which sounds like a peaceful scene until you realize that each chunk is moving at an incredible fast speed, which turns them all into, in essence, randomly orbiting weapons—as depicted in the artist’s rendering above, which is obviously an exaggerated view of the problem.
Space junk is a growing problem for travel into the cosmos. According to Nasa more than 500,000 pieces of debris are orbiting Earth at speeds of more than 17,500 miles (28,000 kilometres) per hour. At this speed a piece as small as a golf ball could smash a satellite to pieces. Some have even suggested we may be heading towards a ‘Kessler syndrome’-type event. This was envisaged in the 2013 movie Gravity, which portrayed a satellite collision that sparked a chain reaction where debris increasingly impacted other satellites, creating more debris in the process. This has led many companies and agencies to draw up plans to reduce the amount of space debris in Earth orbit, such as proposals to drag debris down with magnetic nets or lasers. The Swiss-based CleanSpaceOne, meanwhile, could grab larger pieces of debris or defunct satellites with a ‘claw’ at its front before dragging it back down to burn up in the atmosphere. Japan’s decision to dedicate part of its national defense to cleaning up Earth orbit will therefore be a welcome development for worried engineers. The move follows Japan’s decision in 2008 to allow military activities in space. The space force will be part of a partnership with the US, as the two seek to cooperate in space, referred to as the ‘fourth battlefield’ by a source in the Mainichi Shimbun.