Have you ever wondered why you can’t see all of the space junk that is supposedly floating around the Earth? We often hear about the thousands of satellites that are currently orbiting our planet along with the massive amount of debris that is also caught in Earth’s orbit, but we almost never see any of them in pictures of the Earth itself.
Many are quick to support conspiracy theories, but the truth is actually much simpler and a lot less exciting--even though space debris is actually a huge problem and something to be thinking about.
At the moment, there are around 4,200 man-made satellites that float around Earth. 1,149 are still in operation and a large chunk of these are incredibly small (like CubeSats, which average about four inches on each of their sides). Other satellites can get much, much bigger, but even the big ones that are over a hundred feet in length are simply dwarfed by the massive size of the Earth.
When you’re comparing four square-inches and 100+ feet to a planet that is 7,917.5 miles across.. There’s a good chance that you’re not going to see anything other than the planet, especially from far-off distances.
The International Space Station (ISS) that often takes so many of the amazing photos of the Earth is only about 357 feet long from end to end, making it the largest man-made object currently orbiting the planet. Even the DSCOVR satellite, which is used to observe Earth from about a million miles away, can’t discern the ISS when taking pictures.
The smallest objects that the EPIC camera onboard DSCOVR can detect have to be at least eight to ten kilometers wide.
Jay Herman, who leads the EPIC camera program, explains that satellites are actually designed to avoid collision with one another, meaning they are often nowhere near each other in terms of orbit, even though there are seemingly so many of them. But, he says, that doesn’t mean space junk isn’t a problem.
“There’s a lot of space junk up there. In fact, the ISS has to maneuver occasionally to get out of the way of stuff that NORAD tracks with radar.”
And while much of the debris circling Earth isn’t exactly massive, the tiny stuff is still incredibly dangerous.
“The velocities are so high that if a little piece of junk hit you it would do a lot of damage,” says Herman.
Pictures, like the ones displayed here, illustrate just how crowded Earth’s orbit has become. If you really need convincing that there’s stuff out there, just find a quiet place outside with low light pollution when the skies are clear, and look up. You should be able to spot numerous different satellites steadily floating through the skies with their blinking lights.