A visualization of satellites and other debris in orbit around Earth on Stuff in Space (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Stuff in Space was created by James Yoder, an incoming electrical engineering student at the University of Texas, Austin. It updates each day with orbit data from Space-Track.org, combined with position information from the satellite-js Javascript library. In a sense it shows what is happening in real time, and with your mouse you can click right and left to shift around the globe and examine what’s out there. (Note: the site seems to not render well in Chrome so Firefox is recommended.)

Stuff in Space

Iridium 33 Collision Debris (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Rocket Body orbit (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Galileo-related debris (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

GPS satellite orbit (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

h/t Gizmodo

View Stuff in Space online (Firefox browser recommended). 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...