Low Earth orbit could become UNUSABLE for fear of catastrophic satellite collision, experts warn

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Future space launches could be jeopardized if “dumb” regimes like Russia don’t stop blasting the skies creating debris, experts have warned.

Low Earth orbit is filling up with so-called “space junk” that could wreak havoc on satellites, as well as astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

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Even the smallest pieces can cause damage due to the high speedCredit: Getty

Over 30,000 bits are currently being tracked – although there are also millions of tiny sub-1cm bits floating around.

With billionaires like Elon Musk launching payloads of satellites into space, experts fear the skies will become overcrowded, increasing the risk of collisions.

Although the threat is unlikely to cause a fatal accident on Earth, it could disrupt communications and internet access.

Professor Lord Rees, who holds the prestigious title of Astronomer Royal to advise the Queen on astronomical matters, told The Sun that if the situation worsens it could render low Earth orbit “unusable”.

“The thing people worry about the most is the huge number of small fragments that are virtually impossible to clean but could damage a satellite,” he warned.

Professor Lord Martin Rees says there is

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Professor Lord Martin Rees says there is ‘serious concern’ about the problem

“It’s a serious concern in low Earth orbit, especially if SpaceX puts in place those 40,000 Starlink spacecraft.

“Assuming two spacecraft collide, it produces a lot of debris, and it makes it more likely that another satellite will be hit by debris and break apart.

“There are serious concerns that low Earth orbit could eventually become unusable because the risk of a satellite being hit by something is too great.”

Professor Martin Barstow, from the University of Leicester, told The Sun the risks at the moment are low but we need to act now.

The astrophysics expert denounced Russia’s “stupid” decision to deliberately blow up one of its satellites in space, dangerously detonating thousands of pieces of debris.

“They could potentially become very significant risks if the problem got out of control,” he said.

“A few events that cause a lot of debris could start to speed up the process.

“It’s not a complete mess, it can be fixed – the same way if people are stupid or if certain regimes are stupid – I think I’ll be very happy to call the Russians stupid for blowing up this satellite .

“I don’t see why I should tackle this because people testing anti-satellite weapons are actually creating debris and that’s causing problems.”

Some satellites, such as those used for satnavs, are higher and therefore would not be affected in the same way.

But if low orbit became a mess, it would prevent us from having clear access.

“Of course you have to actually walk through the area where the debris is and that could actually make it much more difficult for satellites to move into deeper orbits,” Professor Barstow warned.

“We are not at the stage where the worst situation is likely or expected to occur.

“It’s a bit like the environmental issues here, you have to start working on it now and worry about the longer term future.

“If you leave it will be too late if we don’t do something now.”

As for the risk to people on Earth, for now that’s for sure.

Small fragments would burn in the atmosphere.

Professor Lord Rees, who is publishing a book called The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration later this year, said larger spacecraft would pose a real danger to us on Earth, but fortunately the likelihood at the moment is minimal.

ESA is currently tracking more than 30,000 pieces of debris in space

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ESA is currently tracking more than 30,000 pieces of debris in spaceCredit: EPA

In other news, a new space station that Tom Cruise has filmed on has made jaws drop for all the wrong reasons.

Scientists have pinpointed when they believe the Sun will explode and wipe out everything on Earth in the process.

And Apple is working on a fix for a recently discovered bug that is capable of exposing iPhone users’ personal data.


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