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I suspect it’ll take a few million years at least before gravitational forces spin the metal junkyard we’ve erected around our planet into something like Saturn’s iconic rings. But we’re working on it. Right now, the Pentagon’s Global Surveillance Network is tracking 27,000 chunks of manmade orbital litter.

According to NASA, more than 85 percent of that crap —dead satellites, spent boosters, discharged mission dross, etc. – is softball-sized or larger. Factor in another half-million shards the size of pencil tips, plus an estimated hundred million artificial particles on the micrometer scale, and the odds of safe and event-free deployments in low-Earth orbit (LEO) are shrinking.

For more than 40 years, an uncertain but growing percentage of that waste has been intentionally discharged, the result of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons experiments. Most recently, in November, Russia smashed an ASAT projectile into one of its defunct platforms, Cosmos 1408, which scattered another 1,500 pieces of mangled obsolescence into LEO. The debris from that collision forced the international crew of the ISS, which included two Russians, to make evasive maneuvers.

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