While humanity has only been launching huge payloads into outer space since the 1950s, with Sputnik breaking into orbit in 1957, a lot of human-made debris and technology now circle the planet. A new data visualization project called Stuff in Space is an interactive portal for the satellites, rocket parts, and collision fragments up above the Earth.
It’s similar to NASA’s J-Track, which has long been a resource for tracking satellites. While you need to know exactly the spacecraft name to search for it on Stuff in Space (for example, ISS for the International Space Station), there are groupings like debris from the 2009 Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251 collision over Siberia, GPS satellites, and the Ariane 5 European Space Agency rockets.
Now at first glance the visualization might look alarming, but keep in mind that the orbs representing working and defunct satellites in blue, debris in grey, and rocket parts in red are not to scale. So while it might appear like there’s a huge shell of junk suffocating our planet, we’re not yet in a WALL-E situation where we’d have to crash through a barrier of dead satellites to escape. Also a lot of the debris in low orbit will eventually come back down, and many obsolete spacecraft are placed in a “graveyard orbit” to cut down chances of collision. Furthermore, not everything we’ve ever shot into the sky is still out there: some like the Mir space station were crashed into a region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Spacecraft Cemetery. However, Stuff in Space does accessibly show just how much is up there, and considers the impact our short time in space travel has had on the character of our planet.
View Stuff in Space online (Firefox browser recommended).
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