There’s now so much junk up there that space missions have to be planned to avoid it. The orbital shrapnel is moving at about the speed of a bullet, and will cheerfully slice up your multi billion dollar spacecraft for no extra fee.
According to Space Travel.com there’s a regular dance between the bullets going on:
"Near-Earth objects can travel up to 17,000 miles per hour, so a collision with a launching or orbiting satellite or with a manned space craft, could be catastrophic," said Terje Turner of AFSPC Air, Space and Nuclear Operations directorate. "Every space launch requires that these objects be tracked closely in order to avoid accidental collisions."
There are cataloged items, and non-cataloged items, for those who like a bit of mystery in their space program budgets.
“What are these space objects? Roughly seven percent of them are operational satellites. About 15 percent are rocket bodies, and about 78 percent are fragments of rocket bodies and inactive satellites. For instance, the oldest piece of space debris is a sphere, six inches in diameter, launched in March 1958.”
The 1958 thing sounds like a bit of Sputnik. Understandably, there’s an entire network tracking these things, the Space Surveillance Network, which makes its information available to foreign space agencies.
The article is at pains to point out that there are huge gaps between pieces, and that an area the size of the United States would have something like four pieces of debris. Some of these objects do eventually come down, too.
In terms of environmental hazards, though, 17,000 pieces is a lot. There are now a lot of new players entering the field, China, Japan, and India, as well as the increasingly active Europeans and Russians.
If everyone produces roughly the same amount of garbage, there will be a problem, even if the present situation is tolerable.
Might be an idea to start figuring out how to clean this up before it does some damage. The disaster scenario would be “damaged spacecraft hits city”. If it came down intact, it would hit like a nuke. If not, like a random machine gun.
One suggestion would be a robot cleaner, capable of matching orbits, and based on the ISS Space Station.
Simple, easier to maintain, and a lot cheaper than “dodge the bullets” overall.
Either that or get some guy with a butterfly net and a lot of time on his hands, who doesn't get motion sickness and isn't afraid of heights or ridicule.
No, not me. I'm busy... Or did I just volunteer....?
So... who's paying for the butterfly net?