Space is getting awfully dirty

Litter encircles our planet, in the form of thousands — or even millions — of bits of space debris: abandoned satellites and rockets, chunks blown apart by collisions, radioactive fuel, and that one blue sock you lost. “It’s sort of a classic environmental problem, not unlike air pollution or water pollution,” says NASA’s Nicholas L. Johnson. “If you wait until you start seeing negative consequences, then the environment is pretty far gone already, and cleaning it up can be very, very difficult.” Indeed, despite amusing talk about using giant Nerf-style balls and litter-zapping lasers to tidy up space, “we do not yet have the technology to economically make any substantial improvements,” says Johnson. Some objects reenter orbit and are vaporized by heat; the occasional object makes it to the earth’s surface, like a 551-pound propellant tank that landed in Texas in 1997. But mostly, the stuff just accumulates, periodically bashing into working satellites or space stations.