What Is Space Junk? Not Just Satellites but Mementos, Tools, and Poop
Five bizarre things in the trash pile in the sky.
Over the past 60 years, human ingenuity has allowed us to send Earthly objects into space. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide us with a way to clean it all up. Now, there’s a growing 500,000-piece heap of accidental “space junk” above our planet, some of which seriously threatens the valuable spacecraft, satellites, and modules that we rely on here on Earth. The rest of it is just weird, and occasionally kind of sweet.
Most of this junk includes smashed-up dead satellites and discarded rocket boosters, much of which can potentially damage the billion-dollar communications satellites in the sky. But among the debris are some strange objects that strike a more personal, human chord. And while many things lost in space — say, that famous spatula — eventually re-enter Earth’s orbit, the following five items will likely be space-bound for years to come.
During the 1971 Apollo 14 mission, Commander Alan Shepard — who famously became the first American to fly in space ten years earlier — teed off on the lunar surface. The three golf balls he hit are still nestled in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon. Shepard’s first two shots didn’t go so well, but he said the third ball journeyed forward for “miles and miles and miles.”
A Family Portrait
Charlie Duke was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 16 and the tenth man on the moon. When he walked on the moon in 1972, he was the youngest person to ever do so. Duke’s time on the moon was also special because of what he left behind: a photograph of his family, which is still there today.
While the photograph itself has most likely faded, what was written underneath it is probably intact. The inscription reads: “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.”
The Canadian actor James Doohan was famous for his portrayal of the Scottish Chief Engineer of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. Seven years after the actor passed away in 2005, a small urn containing his ashes was launched into space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. His ashes were flown under an agreement between SpaceX and the memorial spaceflight company Celestis. Doohan’s remains weren’t alone: Ashes belonging to 308 other people were also on the flight. Each urn carried a cool price tag of $2,995 per gram of ash.
Old Weather Satellites
Space agencies put defunct satellites out of their misery in a multitude of ways. When satellites exist within a relatively close orbit, the last of their fuel can be used to slow them down to the point that they fall out of of orbit and burn as they drop through Earth’s atmosphere. Other times, satellites go into a controlled orbit and, instead of burning up, fall back to Earth into an area of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of New Zealand called the “spacecraft cemetery..” And if the orbit range of the satellite is large, its makers punt it to an orbit 200 miles away from Earth — an area known as “graveyard orbit.” That’s the spooky part of space.
In 2017, a weather satellite called Meteosat-7 was sent to its final resting space in graveyard orbit. It did, however, have a good run: It was the longest operational meteorological satellite in European history.
Poop, Pee, and Puke
It’s true that humans have covered the moon with man-made items. It’s also true that some of those items are especially more man-made than others.
So far, astronauts have left behind approximately 96 bags of poop, pee, and puke on the lunar surface. It’s a lovely causality of space exploration: In order to bring back moon rocks, cores, and dirt, some things have had to be left behind. Those things are the things that come out of people.