Pieces of unwanted debris left by humans in low-Earth orbit have become the equivalent of a 'new drifting island of plastic' in outer space, an expert has warned.
Now, Ekaterini Kavvada, the directorate general of Defence Industry and Space at the European Commission, has warned that this space junk is 'not a theoretical threat but a reality' – similar to the threat posed by floating islands of plastic in the Earth's oceans.
She added that the debris could cause damage to active European and other satellites, adding that if we do not react in a safe and timely way, the consequences will be 'detrimental.'.
Pieces of unwanted debris left by humans in low-Earth orbit have become the equivalent of a 'new drifting island of plastic' in outer space, an expert has warned (artist's impression) .
Speaking at the 13th European Space Conference, Ms Kavvada said: 'Orbiting space debris has become the new drifting island of plastic – if I had to make the comparison – that poses a looming threat for the safety and the security of all the traffic and space sustainability.'.
However, Ms Kavvada warned that there are still nearly 3,000 inactive satellites drifting in space, with recent data suggesting there have been more than 500 break-ups or explosions of these space objects, resulting in fragmentation.
She said that adding webs of networked satellites, known as mega constellations, to space could result in the Kessler syndrome – a chain reaction where more and more objects collide to create new space junk to the point where Earth's orbit became unusable.
Rolf Densing, director of operations at the European Space Agency, who was also speaking at the space conference, said: 'We are living in a time the mega constellations are being built up, and the population of objects in orbit around us is growing by the thousands per year.
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called 'space junk', but only 22,000 are tracked (artist's impression)
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called 'space junk' - left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes - in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure
Around 500,000 pieces of human-made debris (artist's impression) currently orbit our planet, made up of disused satellites, bits of spacecraft and spent rockets