The Rise of Chinese Space Junk
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

The Rise of Chinese Space Junk


In one of this fall’s most anticipated blockbusters, Gravity, an astronaut duo played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are left adrift in space after their shuttle is destroyed. The culprit is Hollywood’s newest villain: space debris. Unfortunately for present day astronauts, this is not just Hollywood’s febrile imagination at work. As innocuous as it may sound, space debris is extremely hazardous and could even be lethal. In fact, the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) has initiated an entire program, the Orbital Debris Program Office, dedicated to studying and monitoring this man-made phenomena. The international community, including the European Union and United Nations, has meanwhile been pursuing resolutions to mitigate and reduce space debris.

Orbital Debris: Just Trash?

NASA classifies space debris into two groups: natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. Most artificial debris is found in orbit around the Earth; hence it is called orbital debris. NASA further defines orbital debris as “any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function.” This includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris.

Presently, both the Department of Defense (DOD) and NASA track orbital debris as miniscule as 2 inches (5 centimeters) in size. Per NASA estimates, there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris larger than a marble and up to 20,000 pieces larger than a softball floating around the Earth’s atmosphere. This debris is incredibly dangerous as it whizzes in orbit at speeds in excess of 17,500 mph. At these velocities, even the smallest piece could incapacitate a satellite or spacecraft.

As early as the 1970s, scientists working on both the U.S. and Russian space programs were becoming increasingly alarmed by the exponential growth of orbital debris. NASA’s Donald J. Kessler studied the potential dangers of colliding space debris. In what was later dubbed the “Kessler Syndrome,” he postulated that the volume of space debris increases with the number of launches, especially in the low Earth orbit (LEO). Over time, the density of debris will increase, causing collusions that produce even more debris. Often, this debris will fall harmlessly to Earth. But Kessler believed the remainder could ultimately form a “debris belt” around the Earth that would inhibit space travel. A 2008 report by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that orbital debris is like radioactive fallout after a nuclear detonation because it can linger for many years.

Currently, the LEO has the highest concentration and rate of growth of debris than any other orbit. Debris concentrations more than doubled in the LEO between 2004 and 2009. There are myriad reasons why the LEO is a preferred orbit but one of the most important is that it is good for Earth observation missions (weather, intelligence and communications satellites). Most satellites operate on Sun-synchronous orbits in this region at altitudes of between 370 to 560 miles (600 and 900 km). As a result, this is also the orbit where the most collisions occur. The UN’s Office of Outer Space Affairs Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space draft report in 2010 notes that the first collision in this region occurred on February10, 2009 between an Iridium-33 (U.S.) and Cosmos-2251 (Russian) satellite. This event alone produced more than 2,200 traceable items.

The emergence of a new player in space complicates the issue. With China’s first successful satellite launch in 1970, the advent of manned spaceflight in 2003 with astronaut Lang Liwei, a proposed Moon rover launch by the end of this year and the planned Tiangong-2 (Heavenly Palace-2) space lab to debut around 2015, the volume of orbital debris is expanding rapidly. This amplification of the “Kessler Syndrome” threatens not only the international community’s stellar assets but also Chinese ones as well, including the safety of their astronauts, commonly referred to as taikonauts.

October 8, 2013 at 05:05

Its silly to think of the exponental terms of the inferences of the Chinese information with the sheer economic growth of the 7th sector for the space dibris has in unfound relation and exploits uninformative policies regarding the cleanup costs for this isssue. A respectable resolution should be saught out.

September 24, 2013 at 21:37

Thank you for the comments cdk. As I mentioned, the US has contributed a lot to the orbital debris problem. The purpose of the article was to bring that to light as well as recent Chinese contributions. China will not be the only nation moving forward with its space program (India, Nigeria, Brazil, etc). I hope we can all learn from the issues of orbital debris.

September 24, 2013 at 21:34

Thanks Jonathan. Be careful before you book that SpaceX or Virgin Galactic flight!

September 24, 2013 at 21:31

Thank you for the generous comments James R.S.

September 24, 2013 at 21:29

Thank you for the comments. Unfortunately, the material on orbital debris is a very complex and lenghty for the casual reader. I wanted the reader to be aware that orbital debris is growing exponentially and it will be with the global community for some time. I am glad the article did generate some debate and attention for this issue.

September 24, 2013 at 21:19

@Dewey Last. You are correct – orbital decay wasn't given nearly as much attention as it should have. For brevity, I had to leave it out. Unfortunately, I was only able to get NASA's remarks that it may take some time for the material to re-enter, if it does.

September 24, 2013 at 21:14

@JMT. Thank you. The thrust of the article was to inform all (including China) that orbital debris is an exponentially growing problem. I hope it continues to generate some constructive debate.

September 24, 2013 at 11:22

This article is a fascinating (albeit brief) look into what is an interesting and important topic. I did not particularly know much about it before now, however I did not interpret it as being hopelessly anti-Chinese as some commentors/readers obviously have.

The main point of this article seems to be to highlight the increasing amount of space junk contributed by Chinese activites. However it seems clear to me that the vast bulk of space debis is Russian and American in origin. In my view countries should take full responsibility for minimising and reducing space debris whether they be American, Russian, Chinese or anyone else. Taking that further, the Chinese cannot justify a carefree attitude to space debris simply because more of the current space debris is American and Russian.

Some of the commentors to this article probably need to take a chill pill. It seems so easy for readers to interpret an article as pro/anti China or United States etc, but it doesn't have to be this way. Can't we just agree that space could do with a bit of a tidy up?

Paul Cobbaut
September 20, 2013 at 23:19

I agree it is a good article, but the bias is lousy. China hardly adds to the space debris compared to USA (check the numbers). The title should not have included China.

September 20, 2013 at 07:30

But keep an eye to ALciaDA

September 20, 2013 at 07:20

Hang the gunslinging criminals!

F u
September 18, 2013 at 18:23

Here's another one:   Looking forward when Western coal exports to China is eliminated if not reduced – the primary cause of air pollutants.

F u
September 18, 2013 at 18:22

Anyone who has set precedents of creating space junk needs to shut their trap.

It's going to take another 50 years for China to catch up to the amount of space junk created by the U.S. alone, but I doubt it will given that China has not even come close, not to mention it recently stopped hazardous and recycled waste imported from the West, fulfilled promises of reducing emissions (beyond India's promise), is one of few countries to ban plastic grocery bags, pursued green technologies despite Western resistance, having the lower energy consumption and emissions per capita, etc.

Dewey Last
September 18, 2013 at 06:35

   Object     Mass               Reentry Date (age in years) 

   Mir         120,000 kg       23 March 2001 (15years)                                                                         Skylab       69,000 kg       11 July 1979 (6 years)                                                                                         Salyut 7   40,000 kg         7  February 1991 (8 years)

There is a saying, "What goes up, must come down." The author has not researched "orbital decay", or purposely did not include the related topic. The lower orbiting debris will decay rapidly into the atmosphere, while the higher orbiting debris will take considerably more time. 

Basically, the title of this article suggests China is mainly to blame. The largest objects are US and Russia. The questions to ask is: What orbit [high or low] did the China anti-satellite test have? What is the re-entry date of the debris? 


I have not been posting recently due to having posts censored [a bit angry because of it]. Articles need to be completely researched. Articles like this do not paint the whole picture of the problem. And yes, there is a problem, however orbital debris has a life span. I just want to vent a bit here about the way posts are censored. Also the quality of articles. Especially like this one which is anti-China in nature. 

September 18, 2013 at 00:03

Junk and chinese = fit perfectly.

September 18, 2013 at 00:03

China again disregards the impact of their actions on the global commons, much like the massive increase in air pollution from brown coal and sea pollution from dumped garbage.  Soon there will be dead Chinese pigs floating in space, and they will continue to complain about the west.  Blaming the west is valid only in that is where China obtained the ability to destroy the environment at an unprecedented rate. 

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