Science & Technology

Check Out the Damage That Space Junk the Size of a Pencil Eraser Can Do

There's a ton of space junk out there — actually, about 6,300 tons. But better that it's out in space than here on Earth, right? Well, that depends. If you're an astronaut, you'd probably prefer it planet-side. At orbital velocity, a speck the size of a pencil eraser can punch a hole 5 inches deep in a chunk of aluminum, and this picture proves it.

Related Video: Attack of the Cosmic Space Junk!

A Lotta Punch in a Little Package

Don't worry: this piece of aluminum wasn't a crucial part of a spacecraft that was destroyed by an errant piece of trash. This smash-up happened entirely on Earth as a demonstration of the types of dangers that are up in the exosphere. Still, it's enough to make us reconsider our dreams of visiting the ISS. The offending speck that caused this damage was tiny — it only weighed about a half-ounce (14 grams). In other words, it was about the size and mass of a pencil eraser. That crater? It's a full five inches (13 centimeters) deep.

To keep from falling to the ground, items in orbit have to be traveling something like 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour). That's how such a tiny piece of trash can wreak so much havoc. To simulate that kind of force in the lab, researchers used a light gas gun capable of propelling objects at an incredible velocity.

Avoiding Space Potholes

The bad news is that a very tiny piece of debris can cause major disasters. The worse news is that outer space is full of debris. This kind of damage isn't entirely hypothetical, either — in 2016, a paint chip left a spiderweb crack in one of the windows of the International Space Station. You know, the sheet of glass that separates the astronauts onboard from the endless void? Also in 2016, the European Space Agency's Sentinal-1A satellite was hit by a millimeter-sized chunk that left a dent 100 times bigger than itself.

The big pieces of junk can be tracked, and orbiting satellites can be moved to higher or lower orbits to avoid them. But the small pieces, like paint chips and other tiny stuff, are a lot harder to track. We've just got to make a best guess for them and plan accordingly — at least, until they send somebody up there to clean up the junk.

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For more about the problems with orbital debris, check out "Space Junk: The Dangers of Polluting Earth's Orbit" by Karen Romano Young. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas March 13, 2018

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