Don't look now, but yes the sky is falling in

Don't look now, but there's about two million kilograms of garbage floating above your head. Really, it's been there for over 30 years and it's got a fancy name - we call it Space Junk!

Experts believe there are more than 200,000 objects floating around up there forming an orbiting garbage dump around Earth.

A hazard to spacecraft, some of those bits and pieces scream along at 28,000 kilometres per hour - that's ten times the speed of a bullet!

"Objects from 1 to 10 centimetres in size cause the real worry, said Dave Reneke from Australasian Science Magazine.

"These are too small and numerous to be individually tracked but could cripple or kill an astronaut in orbit."

As an example of the hazard, in 1983 a tiny speck gouged a pea-sized pit in the window of a space shuttle in orbit.  A paint fleck might sound trivial but a mere speck carries a lethal punch when it's flying at several kilometres per second.

Most bits burn up in the atmosphere but if they're big enough they can come down with a mighty thud - remember the orbiting U.S. space station Skylab? 

Launched in 1973, it crashed to Earth six years later with the biggest part of it ending up in Australia. That's space junk.

Private enterprise is adding to the congestion. "Believe it or not, you can even be buried in space now in lipstick sized containers," Dave said.

  "An American company, Celestis, conducted its first 'space funeral flight' in 1997 with the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and 23 other people from all walks of life."

Another US company, Masten Space Systems are offering to send any of your mementos into orbit in a soft drink sized container for a mere $9.95… err, as long as you use your credit card. More space junk.

But, wait a minute, why should I worry, if it's in space it can't fall on me, right?

"Wrong! It can fall and it has before, in fact pieces of space junk enter the atmosphere almost every week," Dave said. 

  "We accumulate on average 40 tons of it per day! In a year, it's enough cosmic junk to fill a six story office building. Sleep well tonight."

David Reneke is a Australian astronomer who writes for from 'Australasian Science' magazine.  

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