European Space Agency
An artist's illustration of a satellite collision from space debris in orbit. Space traffic accidents only beget more such accidents.
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updated 9/1/2011 2:54:14 PM ET 2011-09-01T18:54:14

There is so much junk in space that collisions could start to increase exponentially, leading to a continuously growing pile of rubble in orbit, a new report warns.

The independent report, released Thursday, surveyed NASA's work to meet the threat of space debris. It was sponsored by NASA, and conducted by the National Research Council, a nonprofit science policy organization.

Space debris — an accumulation of broken satellites, spent rocket stages and other junk in orbit — is dangerous because it could hit and damage working satellites, as well as spacecraft like the International Space Station.

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Furthermore, when two pieces of junk collide, they can break apart into many smaller pieces, significantly increasing the amount of debris in space. This happened, for example, in the 2009 crash of a U.S. Iridium communications satellite and a broken Russian spacecraft.

It's a problem that will likely become more visible, and urgent, over time.

Kessler Syndrome
"Space is becoming essential to our current civilization," Donald Kessler, chairman of the report committee and retired head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, told Space.com. "If for any reason we weren’t able to use satellites as easily as we do today, there would be a reduction in the standard of living."

The situation we're in now is called the Kessler Syndrome, a term named after Kessler, in which the amount of debris has reached a critical threshold. There is now enough orbital debris that collisions will cause a continual cascade, with each adding to the total amount of debris and increasing the chances of further collisions, according to several studies, Kessler said.

"Even if we add nothing else to orbit, the amount of debris could continue to increase as a result of random collisions between fairly large objects," Kessler said. "You'd generate debris faster than the natural decay process could return it."

Budget woes
But while the dangers posed by growing orbital detritus are increasing, NASA's budget and management structure has not kept pace, the new report found.

"The program really started from the ground up and has expanded over the last 35 years considerably, and has a lot more facets to it," Kessler said. "Its responsibility keeps increasing, but the management and funding just has not kept up with the program."

Another complication is the fact that most of NASA's space debris programs consist of a single staff member.

"If anyone retires or moves you have a pretty large gap," Kessler said. "There's usually just one civil servant that's been charged with a whole bunch of things."

Primary among the report's recommendations is for NASA to come up with a strategic plan to prioritize the areas within its micrometeoroid and orbital debris program that deserve the most funding and attention.

Crunching the numbers
The report also highlighted the need for NASA to spearhead the gathering of urgently needed data in several areas to improve scientific models and predictions of the effect of debris collisions. For example, the committee recommended that NASA study the differences in how various types of spacecraft behave and break up during a collision.

The report also recommends that NASA help establish a better database of information about spacecraft anomalies. Too often companies don't share details about problems that occur on their satellites, often for proprietary reasons. But this information is important for calculations about how spacecraft fail and become uncontrollable.

Kessler suggested that an anonymous registry would allow companies to share information without attaching their names to the data.

Currently, NASA's programs focus on studying and tracking orbital debris. At some point, however, it will likely become necessary to somehow remove especially risky pieces of junk from orbit. That will require technology that doesn't exist yet.

"The program has been very good at identifying the need to clean space, but in terms of the how-you-do-it part, the technology required is going to require quite a lot of work," Kessler said.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Dear NASA, clean up this mess

  1. Closed captioning of: Dear NASA, clean up this mess

    >>> clean up this mess, a message delivered by parents to their kids since the beginning of time, is now being issued to the national academy of sciences by nasa and other space agencies . the reason? there's too much space junk in orbit, 22,000 objects that could do damage to spaceships and valuable satellites. nets, magnets and giant umbrellas to scoop the stuff up. the folks at nasa say they're going to think about it. and

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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