More than 14,000 hunks of dangerous space junk are hurtling around Earth — here's who put it all up there

  • Tens of thousands of objects have rocketed into space since the start of the Space Race.
  • Most objects are hunks of space junk moving at speeds of roughly 17,500 mph.
  • The US government maintains an online catalog of which countries are responsible for the objects in orbit around Earth, and what they are.
  • Russia, the United States, and China have created and deorbited the most space debris.


China's first space station, called Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace," will fall to its fiery doom on or around April 1.

But the 9.4-ton spacecraft is just one of thousands of large human-made objects zipping around Earth at roughly 17,500 mph, or about 10 times as fast as a speeding bullet.

This is not good.

space shuttle endeavour wing debris junk hit hole damage nasaNASA

The more objects there are in orbit — especially large, uncontrolled space stations, used rocket parts, and dead satellites — the greater the chances are for a catastrophic chain-reaction of collisions and debris creation, called a Kessler syndrome event. Such a disaster could shut off large swaths of space to astronauts and new satellites for generations.

"This debris can stay up there for hundreds of years," Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer and atmospheric reentry specialist who works for the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, previously told Business Insider, adding that objects in higher orbits (e.g. geostationary satellites) can circle Earth for thousands of years.

Luckily, the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) keeps an eye out for satellites and space debris using ground-based radar stations and optical telescopes, plus some observatories in space.

Right now, it's tracking about 23,000 objects larger than a softball above Earth, and roughly 14,000 of these are uncontrolled — and at risk of creating more debris.

Which countries launch the most stuff into space

Most objects are in low-Earth orbit, roughly 25o miles above the planet. Fewer satellites are launched to geostationary orbits, or about 22,300 miles high.

But what goes up usually comes down in space. Earth's outermost atmosphere drags and slows down objects over time, causing them to fall, burn up, and, in some cases, crash into the ocean or land.

Publicly available orbital-tracking data from SSN is fed into the website Space-Track.org (registration required), which is contracted by the US Strategic Command.

Here are the top 10 countries and organizations with the most objects in space and what they are, based on data downloaded on March 28, 2018:

space junk debris satellites numbers by country active march 2018 bi graphicsSamantha Lee/Business Insider

Russia has the most stuff in space, with 6,512 objects in orbit. The US is second with 6,262 objects.

Considering that rocket bodies are a type of large space debris, Russia is arguably the messiest in space, with 4,994 uncontrolled objects. The US is a close second with 4,684 uncontrolled objects.

China has only recently ramped up its space program, yet it's in a close third with 3,601 hunks of space junk; this is because the nation destroyed one of its own satellites in a 2007 anti-satellite weapons test.

Satellite consortiums like Intelsat, SES, and Globalstar make the top 10, though they are relatively small space-junk contributors, since most of their objects are active satellites.

Space-Track.org also shows which countries have had the most stuff fall from space:

space junk debris satellites numbers by country deorbited march 2018 bi graphicsSamantha Lee/Business Insider

Russia is a clear historical winner, with 21,661 objects that have crashed to Earth. The US has deorbited about 12,453 about half as much deorbited stuff.

China, which is a relative newcomer to space that launched its first satellite in 1970, has lost about 5,213 objects to a fiery doom.

SEE ALSO: A space junk disaster is a real possibility, and surprisingly little is stopping a major loss of human access to space

Everything Space-Track.org lists is just a small fraction of the total number of objects.

According to the European Space Agency, there may be 670,000 bits of debris larger than a fingernail up there and perhaps 170 million pieces of debris larger than 1 millimeter — objects like flecks of paint and fragments of explosive bolts used on rockets.

How to clean up outer space

tiangong 1 chinese space station atmospheric reentry illustration aerospace corporation youtubeAerospace Corporation/YouTube

Getting old spacecraft out of orbit is key to preventing the formation of space junk, and many space agencies and corporations now build spacecraft with systems to de-orbit them.

But Ailor and others are eager to push the development of new technologies and methods that can lasso, bag, tug, and otherwise remove the old, uncontrolled stuff that's already up there and continues to pose a threat.

"I've proposed something like a XPRIZE or a Grand Challenge, where would you identify three spacecraft and give a prize to an entity to remove those things," he said.

The biggest hurdle in defeating space debris, however, is likely human.

"It's not just a technical issue. This idea of ownership gets to be a real player here," Ailor said. "No other nation has permission to touch a US satellite, for instance. And if we went after a satellite ... it could even be deemed an act of war."

Ailor said someone needs to get nations together to agree on a treaty that spells out laws-of-the-sea-like salvage rights to dead or uncontrollable objects in space.

"There needs to be something where nations and commercial authorities have some authority to go after something," he said.

RELATED: Check out our 2018 space calendar: 

33 PHOTOS
2018 Space Calendar
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2018 Space Calendar

January 1, 2: Supermoon/Full Wolf Moon

The moon will make its closest approach to the Earth on New Year's Day and will appear larger and brighter than usual, earning it the distinction of 'Supermoon.'

Additionally, the first full moon of any year earns itself the distinction 'Full Wolf Moon.' The term was created by Native Americans as a nod to the howling wolves they would often hear outside their villages in January.

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

January 3, 4: Quadrantids Meteor shower 

The Quadrantid meteor shower, known to produce from 50-100 meteors during its peak, is 2018’s first major meteor shower.

Sadly, the light from the nearly full moon will block out most of the show.

Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

January 31: Total Lunar Eclipse/Blue Moon

A Blue Moon is the term for the second full moon in a month with more than one full moon.

January's Blue Moon also happens to coincide with a total lunar eclipse.

Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

February 15: Partial Solar Eclipse

This type of solar eclipse occurs when the moon casts a shadow that only covers part of the Sun.

The partial solar eclipse on Feb. 15 will only be visible in parts of South America and Antarctica. Those who wish to take it in will need to wear special protective eyewear. 

Photo: REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

March 2: Full Worm Moon

Another term coined by Native Americans, a 'Full Worm Moon' is the distinction given to the first full moon in March.

As the temperature gets warmer, the ground begins to soften and earthworms begin to rear their heads through the soil again.

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

March 15: Mercury Reaches Greatest Eastern Elongation

Mercury will reach its greatest eastern elongation from the sun (i.e. its highest point above the horizon) on March 15.

This will make the planet more visible than usual.

Photo: The Royal Observatory Greenwich, London

April 22, 23: Lyrid Meteor Shower

The Lyrid meteor shower, which usually produces around 20 meteors per hour, will reach its peak between the night of April 22 and the morning of the 23rd.

Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

April 30: Full Pink Moon

'Full Pink Moon' is another term believed to have been coined by Native American tribes.

In April, the weather finally starts to get warmer and flowers begin to appear, earning the month's full moon its pretty name. 

Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

May 6, 7: Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower, made up of dust particles left behind by Halley's Comet, can produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak.

Although most of its activity can be observed in the Southern Hemisphere, northerners can still take in the show if weather conditions permit.  

Photo: NASA

May 9: Jupiter Reaches Opposition

The gas giant will make its closest approach to Earth on May 9, making it appear brighter than any other time of the year.

Photo: Universal History Archive via Getty Images

May 29: Full Flower Moon

The May full moon was given this name by Native American tribes as the beginning of the month is typically when flowers are in full bloom.

Photo: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

June 27: Saturn Reaches Opposition

Saturn will make its closest approach to Earth on June 27, making it appear brighter than any other time of the year.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS

Jun 28: Full Strawberry Moon

As the last full moon of spring, stargazers can expect this one to be big and bright -- but contrary to its name, it is not red.

Strawberry picking season reaches its peak in June, earning the month's first full moon its delicious name. 

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

July 13: Partial Solar Eclipse

This type of solar eclipse occurs when the Moon casts a shadow that only covers part of the Sun.

The partial solar eclipse on July 13 will only be visible in parts of southern Australia and Antarctica. Those who wish to take it in will need to wear special protective eyewear.

Photo: REUTERS/Mal Langsdon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

July 27: Mars Reaches Opposition

You guessed it -- Mars will make its closest approach to Earth on July 27, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

Photo: NASA/Handout via Reuters 

July 27: Full Buck Moon

The July full moon was dubbed the 'Full Buck Moon' by Native American tribes, as it appears during this time of year when male deer begin to grow their new antlers.

Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri 

July 28, 29: Total Lunar Eclipse

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes completely through the Earth's shadow, lending the moon a dark-redish appearance.

July's lunar eclipse will be visible in North America, eastern Asia and Australia.

Photo: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

August 11: Partial Solar Eclipse

This type of solar eclipse occurs when the moon casts a shadow that only covers part of the Sun.

The partial solar eclipse on Aug. 11 will only be visible in parts of Canada, Greenland, northern Europe, and northern and eastern Asia. Those who wish to take it in will need to wear special protective eyewear.

Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

August 12, 13: Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseids meteor shower, made up of dust particles left behind by the Swift-Tuttle Comet, can produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak.

The thin crescent moon on the night of Aug. 12 will create favorable viewing conditions for the celestial spectacle, which should be visible all over the world.  

Photo: REUTERS/Paul Hanna

August 17: Venus Reaches Greatest Eastern Elongation

Venus will make its closest approach to Earth on Aug. 17, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

Photo: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

August 26: Full Sturgeon Moon

The August full moon earned this distinction from Native American tribes, as sturgeon were most readily caught during this month.

Photo: Pradita Utana/NurPhoto via Getty Images

September 7: Neptune Reaches Opposition

Neptune will make its closest approach to Earth on Sept. 7, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

However, due to its distance from Earth, the blue planet will only appear as a small dot to even those using telescopes. 

Photo: Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

September 24, 25: Full Harvest Moon

The name 'Harvest Moon' goes to the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox every year.

Photo: Santiago Vidal/LatinContent/Getty Images

October 8: Draconid Meteor Shower

The Draconid meteor shower, which is made up of dust particles left behind by comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner, only produces about 10 meteors per hour at its peak.

However, the new moon on the night of Oct. 9 will create extremely favorable viewing conditions for the shower, which should be visible all over the world.  

Photo: NASA 

October 21, 22: Orionid Meteor Shower

Another shower produced by Halley's comet, the Orionids will likely be at least partially blocked by the light of the nearly full moon on Oct. 21.

Photo: Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images

October 23: Uranus Reaches Opposition

Uranus will make its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 23, making it appear brighter, and thus more visible, than any other time of the year.

Unfortunately, it is so far away from the Earth that it will not be visible without a powerful telescope. 

Photo: Time Life Pictures/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

October 24: Full Hunter's Moon

October's full moon was dubbed the 'Full Hunter's Moon' by Naive American tribes since animals are more easily spotted during this time of year after plants lose their leaves/

Photo: PA Wire/PA Images

November 5, 6: Taurids Meteor Shower

The Taurids is a small meteor shower that only produces between 5-10 meteors per hour at its peak.

Photo: NASA 

November 17, 18: Leonid Meteor Shower

The Leonid meteor shower, which radiates from the constellation Leo, produces about 15 meteors per hour at its peak. 

Photo: Ali Jarekji / Reuters

November 23: Full Beaver Moon

November's full moon was given its name by Native America tribes, who would set up beaver traps during the month in hopes of catching the creatures for their warm fur.

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

December 13, 14: Geminids Meteor Shower

The Geminids meteor shower, produced by debris left behind by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, is renowned as one of the most spectacular of its kind. 

The show can produce up to 120 meteors per hour at its peak and will be visible all over the planet on the night of Dec. 13. 

Photo: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

December 21, 22: Ursids Meteor Shower

The Draconid meteor shower, which is made up of dust particles left behind by the Tuttle Comet, only produces about 10 meteors per hour at its peak.

Sadly, the full moon on Dec. 22 will likely create unfavorable viewing conditions for the smaller show.

Photo: REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar DA/LA

December 22: Full Cold Moon

Unsurprisingly, December's full moon was named by Native American tribes after the cold, winter weather.

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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